News of a scheduled address by a white nationalist at Texas A&M University in December roiled the campus on Wednesday, with thousands urging the university to cancel the event and administrators trying to distance themselves from it.
Richard Spencer, a leading voice of the so-called alt-right movement, will speak at a private event at a university auditorium.
University officials on Wednesday said Spencer’s views were contrary to Texas A&M values and said in a statement that “private citizens are permitted to reserve space available to the public as we are a public university.”
The announcement of the speaking engagement comes as white nationalists appear galvanized in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, and are already promising to test the boundaries of speech freedoms on university campuses.
Spencer, who was raised in Dallas and heads a think tank called the National Policy Institute, has defined the alt-right – short for alternative right – as a set of ideologies with a core belief in white identity and a racially homogeneous society.
Critics of the movement says its rhetoric is racist and advocates white supremacy.
Trump’s naming of former Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon his chief strategist has further elevated the profile of the alt-right movement: Bannon has described Breitbart, a conservative news outlet, as “the platform for the alt-right.”
Spencer, who will be speaking at Rudder Auditorium at 7 p.m. Dec. 6, gained wider notoriety this week after video from a national alt-right conference showed supporters raising their arms in an apparent Nazi salute after Spencer told the crowd, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory.”
Trump, in an interview Tuesday with The New York Times, disavowed the group in the video.
According to the Battalion, the Texas A&M daily newspaper, white nationalist Preston Wiginton, who attended A&M in 2006 and 2007 and has brought other white nationalist speakers to the university, organized the event.
“To be clear, Texas A&M University – including faculty, staff, students and/or student groups – did not invite this speaker to our campus nor do we endorse his rhetoric in any way,” Amy B. Smith, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Texas A&M, said in a statement that sought to clarify that Spencer was not invited by the university. “In fact, our leadership finds his views as expressed to date in direct conflict with our core values.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, 4,500 people had signed a petition trying to get Texas A&M to cancel the speaking engagement.
The university said the auditorium was rented under a classification typically reserved for community events, wedding receptions and local high school events.
Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, executive director of the Texas A&M University Hillel, suggested on Twitter that Aggies report Spencer’s appearance to the Texas A&M hate speech alert site.
“I’m dismayed the university is not able to cancel the event, but I understand the protections the First Amendment provides,” Rosenberg told the American-Statesman.
A position paper on hate speech on campus published by the American Civil Liberties Union suggests canceling the speech would be the wrong move.
“Where racist, sexist and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech — not less — is the best revenge. This is particularly true at universities, whose mission is to facilitate learning through open debate and study, and to enlighten.”
The University of Texas policy is to allow any speaker to come onto campus as long as the speaker is invited by a student group and is not breaking any law, said UT spokesman J.B. Bird.
He said part of the Texas Union, which is reserved primarily for use by students, faculty members, and staff members, is available for rent, but private events during the school year generally have to meet the educational or public service missions of the university.