News & Insight

The Uninvited Speaker On Campus: Successfully Dealing with an Increasing, and Troubling, Trend

Over the past few months, it has become more and more common for high profile racist and neo-Nazi groups to attempt to rent space for rallies and lectures on college campuses.  One of the leaders of the so-called “alt-right” movement, Richard Spencer, recently told the Houston Chronicle that he plans to hold even more rallies on campuses across the country and that his group is currently figuring out “the right model” to hold the speeches. Spencer has also said that he deliberately targets college campuses because of the attention it draws and the size of the audiences, in favor and against, that the events attract.

Emboldened by a court victory that forced Auburn University to allow him to speak on campus, Spencer’s organization contacted the University of Florida with plans to rent space on campus in mid-September.  Despite having a policy that allows for the rental of its facilities by outside groups, UF denied the request, citing the safety risks to the campus and community following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Spencer and his organization’s representatives have said they will sue for their right to speak at UF, likely to rely on similar arguments made prior to the event at Auburn, such as unlawful viewpoint discrimination by a public entity.  So, what is a college to do if they are approached by Spencer or a similar organization? (Note: These observations are directed at public institutions and may not necessarily reflect the advice HMBR would give to private institutions.)

First, it is important for the college to consider what kind of unaffiliated, non-invited speaker policy is right for them.  If the college views it as an integral part of their mission to be open to the entire community, then the college should enforce a viewpoint neutral approach to those who request rental space for their events.  While this can at times be a challenging position to take, especially when considering the safety and well-being of students who may feel targeted by the speech, a college that views itself as an open forum for all perspectives may find that this approach is right for them.  In addition, it provides the college with the opportunity to hold alternative events to counter the hateful rhetoric and show campus solidarity with targeted groups.

As an alternative, in the wake of recent controversies, some colleges have revised their outside speaker policies.  These colleges, that previously allowed their spaces to be rented by anyone, have decided that the possibility of an uninvited hate group requesting campus space is too dangerous and too damaging to the college community and have placed viewpoint neutral restrictions on access to their facilities.

For example, after a visit from Spencer in December, Texas A&M made its campus off-limits to outside speakers and groups lacking any affiliation with the university.  Under the revised policy, outside speakers must be sponsored by a recognized student organization that assumes “responsibility for any unpaid costs or property damage associated with the event.”

Even with the new policy in place, and still without a faculty or student organization sponsor, Spencer and his organization requested outdoor space at A&M for an event scheduled in September, directly challenging the new policy.  A&M has denied the request, citing the potential for violence on campus and the disruption the event would cause to class schedules and faculty, staff, and student transportation.

In some cases, colleges have sought to keep hate groups off campus by citing the possibility of violent responses to the event.  For example, an event scheduled by Spencer and his organization at Michigan State University was cancelled earlier this week.  MSU cited the tragic violence in Charlottesville and the threat to public safety on campus as their main justifications for cancelling the event.

However, this approach might not rescue the college from the possibility of holding these events.  As Professor Geoffrey R. Stone at the University of Chicago Law School points out, the Supreme Court has recognized the danger of the “heckler’s veto,” stating that “the government’s responsibility in these circumstances is to control those who threaten violence, rather than sacrifice the speaker’s First Amendment rights.” Citing Whitney v. California, Stone writes that “even the fact that speech is likely to result in ‘violence or in destruction of property [that] is not enough to justify its suppression.’”

On the other hand, there are some legal experts who argue that, given the recent events at UVA and elsewhere, colleges may be able to successfully argue that the potential of violence on campus, and the group’s connections to prior violent events, is great enough to justify the rejection of these events.

The possibility of an “alt-right” speaker coming to campus puts a college administrator in a difficult position, but not one without options.  If the college fears the possibility of a hate group renting space on campus and causing a major disruption, then a revision of their policies might be best.  On the other hand, if the university believes that an “open door” policy toward outside speakers is beneficial and in keeping with their mission—and that the remedy of bad speech truly is more speech—then they should enforce their policy in a content neutral way.

  Aug 18, 2017  |  By    |   On Education