In the wake of the Charlottesville protests during which James Alex Fields Jr. killed one and injured numerous others with his car, a rally to be headlined by white supremacist Richard Spencer, which was scheduled to take place on September 11 at Texas A&M University, has been cancelled.
The “White Lives Matter” rally, which was organized by former Texas A&M student Preston Wiginton, would not have been the first time Spencer appeared on campus. Back in December, Wiginton held a similar event at which Spencer spoke.
The university initially granted permission for the event. As a state-funded entity, Texas A&M cannot stifle the First Amendment rights of those who want to demonstrate on campus.
According to NPR:
Wiginton said he would bring Spencer back on Sept. 11 for an all-day rally. The university denied him access to buildings, under a new policy requiring a student sponsor for facility reservations, so he scheduled the event in a plaza on campus. He promoted the rally with a press release titled “Today Charlottesville, Tomorrow Texas A&M,” the university says.
However, Texas A&M has now cancelled the rally. In a statement released on August 14, the university cited what happened in Charlottesville as cause:
After consultation with law enforcement and considerable study, Texas A&M is cancelling the event scheduled by Preston Wiginton at Rudder Plaza on campus on September 11 because of concerns about the safety of its students, faculty, staff, and the public.
Texas A&M changed its policy after December’s protests so that no outside individual or group could reserve campus facilities without the sponsorship of a university-sanctioned group. None of the 1200-plus campus organizations invited Preston Wiginton nor did they agree to sponsor his events in December 2016 or on September 11 of this year. With no university facilities afforded him, he chose instead to plan his event outdoors for September 11 at Rudder Plaza, in the middle of campus, during a school day, with a notification to the media under the headline “Today Charlottesville, Tomorrow Texas A&M.”
Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus. Additionally, the daylong event would provide disruption to our class schedules and to student, faculty and staff movement (both bus system and pedestrian).
Texas A&M’s support of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech cannot be questioned. On December 6, 2016 the university and law enforcement allowed the same speaker the opportunity to share his views, taking all of the necessary precautions to ensure a peaceful event. However, in this case, circumstances and information relating to the event have changed and the risks of threat to life and safety compel us to cancel the event.
Wiginton was not pleased with the university’s decision, telling The Dallas Morning News: “The Supreme Court has ruled many times that free speech can’t be denied because of the threat of violence.”
He added that the rally had been in the works for months, and that while he understood the concern, he doesn’t believe it merits cancellation:
Of course there’s a cause for concern, but that doesn’t mean that we get to have our rights violated. … You’re telling me that you can’t get police there to protect us from the leftists? Because the leftists are the ones who always bring the violence.
NPR notes that prior to the event being cancelled, “students at the university were already planning a counterprotest called ‘BTHO Hate,’” which stands for “beat the hell outta hate.” Additionally, the Texas state legislature had admonished the leaders of the school to cancel the event.
The Dallas Morning News writes: “State Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, told reporters in Austin that the event was canceled after concerns about hate messages on Facebook and several reports of people saying they’d bring their weapons.”
In an effort to better understand the situation as it pertains to the First Amendment, The Daily Wire spoke with Laurence Tribe, professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard.
Tribe said that “more facts” would be necessary to properly assess any First Amendment violation, however, the “basic principles are clear”:
Free speech, even hateful speech, can’t be shut down altogether on a public campus as long as there’s a practical way to protect the lives and safety of the speaker, the speaker’s supporters, and the speaker’s opponents.
Excluding a speaker solely because school authorities, or most students or faculty, would find the speaker’s message offensive is unconstitutional. So is excluding a speaker just to avoid having to provide police protection.
But a public school or university needn’t subject people to imminent danger in the name of free speech. And neutral and reasonable rules of time, place, manner, and expense can be used to regulate speeches on campus.
The essential question, then, is indeed clear. Is there a practical way to protect the lives and safety of the speaker, the speaker’s supporters, and the speaker’s opponents? If there is, then Texas A&M might have a First Amendment problem on their hands. If not, then their actions are entirely justified.