Administrators at Texas A&M University and the University of Florida have canceled white nationalist rallies planned for both campuses next month. Leaders at the state schools said they supported free speech rights but feared a possible repeat of the violence that erupted last weekend during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Organizers vowed to sue, and it’s not clear the schools will prevail.
Texas A&M leaders on Tuesday canceled the “White Lives Matter” rally announced by former student Preston Wiginton just hours after a 20-year-old white nationalist drove his gray Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counterprotesters at the Charlottesville rally. Wiginton titled his news release, “Today Charlottesville Tomorrow Texas A&M.”
After considering the real likelihood of violence and consulting law enforcement officials, the university canceled the Sept. 11 rally because of “concerns about the safety of its students, faculty, staff, and the public,” administrators said in a statement issued Monday night.
Leaders at the University of Florida faced a similar dilemma over a Sept. 12 event planned by the National Policy Institute, an organization run by white nationalist Richard Spencer. The group requested space at the university, although administrators said they didn’t have a signed contract or a deposit for the event. University president W. Kent Fuchs said he wasn’t sure administrators could keep Spencer off campus, although he called the planned appearance “deeply disturbing.”
But on Wednesday morning, Fuchs said he couldn’t put his students’ safety at risk and denied the group’s request for space. Cameron Padgett, a member of Spencer’s group, said he planned to sue. In April, Padgett won a suit against Auburn University in Alabama after administrators there attempted to block an appearance by Spencer.
University safety experts predict more colleges will face the same dilemma during the upcoming school year.
“People are coming to these protests heavily armed, and mixing into crowds with armed and unarmed people,” Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “That puts a much different dynamic in it for law enforcement. Just because someone is armed does not mean they are not going to be peaceful, but it certainly is a complicator.”
Texas lawmakers from both parties had urged Texas A&M officials to do something to block the event on their campus, but administrators initially said the rally could not be stopped because of free speech protections. On Monday, they said the “risks of threat to life and safety” trumped all other considerations. Wiginton said he plans to sue.
In December, Wiginton invited Spencer to the College Station campus for an event that remained mostly peaceful. Following the cancellation of several provocative white nationalist events at other campuses across the country, Texas A&M administrators pledged to support the free exchange of ideas even though they vehemently disagreed with Spencer’s message. Last year’s event ended without a major incident, an outcome campus leaders feared they could not repeat.
Students already had started planning counterprotests.
“White supremacists keep coming to our campus thinking we’re going to support them,” Adam Key, a doctoral student and counterprotest organizer, told The Texas Tribune. “Just like the last time they showed up, we want to demonstrate as clearly as we can that their ideas are not welcome here.”
Texas A&M alumni note the white nationalist events are especially repugnant for a university that sent more officers to fight the Nazis than all the service academies combined. Texas A&M Regent Tony Buzbee accused Wiginton of seeking attention.
“In the end, the best way to deal with a lowlife like him is to ignore him,” Buzbee said.