University in Texas changes speaker policy after Richard Spencer visits
First posted January 15, 2018 7:36pm EST
Last updated July 8, 2019 7:14pm EDT
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Following student protests of an on-campus speech by white supremacist Richard Spencer, who was invited by Preston Wiginton, a non-student local resident, Texas A&M University changed its policy to require that future speakers have on-campus sponsorship by a recognized organization to reserve a building. In September 2017, Wiginton was allowed to reserve an outdoor space on campus for a different white nationalist rally, though the university ultimately canceled it.
Richard Spencer is president and director of the National Policy Institute, which is dedicated to “the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent,” according to the organization’s website. In November 2016, Spencer addressed a National Policy Institute convention and shouted “Hail Trump!” in a manner that provoked members of his audience to give a Nazi-like salute. In January 2017, Spencer was punched in the face by a masked assailant during Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. Also, his membership was revoked at a gym in Alexandria, Virginia, due to his political beliefs.
Preston Wiginton is a white nationalist who invited Spencer to Texas A&M in December 2016 and organized a “White Lives Matter” rally to take place on campus on Sept. 11, 2017. Wiginton said that there was no significance to scheduling the rally on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. When university officials announced their decision to cancel the event, Wiginton told The Texas Tribune he was considering an unauthorized march through the campus instead, but the event never took place.
On Dec. 6, 2016, approximately 400 people gathered inside Texas A&M’s Memorial Student Center to watch a speech by Richard Spencer, CNN reported. He had been invited to speak at the campus by Preston Wiginton, a Texas A&M alumnus who communicated with the alt-right leader online and has invited other controversial speakers to the College Station, Texas campus in the past, according to The Texas Tribune. Taking advantage of the university’s public status, Wiginton, who is not officially affiliated with the university, paid to reserve the on-campus space for Spencer’s appearance.
Spencer was met with jeers at the event. Some students held protest signs, CNN reported, including one that displayed an image of Adolf Hitler’s face with a gun to his head and read “Follow your leader.” Law enforcement officers with riot shields expelled protesters from inside the hall where Spencer was speaking, and the university’s police department arrested two non-student attendees on unknown charges.
Texas A&M Senior Vice President Amy Smith said the school “finds [Spencer’s] views as expressed to date in direct conflict with our core values.” The university sponsored a counter-event during his speech called “Aggies United,” featuring actor Hill Harper, journalist Roland Martin, and Holocaust survivor Max Glauben, among others.
Wiginton reserved space on the campus once more, in 2017. He planned to bring Spencer back to Texas A&M on Sept. 11 as part of a white nationalist rally. He reserved a “free speech area” on a central plaza for the event, since the university’s new speaker policy prevented him from reserving a building without the sponsorship of a student group. Wiginton said he chose the university for the rally because he wanted to address future generations of Americans.
A&M administrators made the decision to cancel the event after Wiginton compared it to the march in Charlottesville, reported The Tribune. In a press release advertising the event, Wiginton wrote, “CHARLOTTESVILLE TODAY TEXAS A&M TOMORROW,” which administrators pointed to as motivation for canceling the event. There was concern over student, faculty, staff, and public safety.
Texas legislators had also put pressure on the university to cancel the event. State Rep. Helen Giddings (D) gave a speech on the House floor urging the university to “denounce and fight against this violent group,” and State Rep. Paul Workman (R) circulated a petition calling for the event not to happen, reported NPR. The state senate expressed similar sentiments.
Event proceeded as planned; university changed speech policy
Richard Spencer was able to speak on campus in December 2016, despite student protests and opposition by university administration. On March 21, 2017, however, Texas A&M announced it was altering its speaker invitation policy to require that all future non-faculty speakers have on-campus sponsorship by a recognized organization before they rent space there. The new policy also requires that an external speaker’s sponsors attend the event and assume responsibility for any damage to university property or unpaid fees owed by the speaker. According to the Texas A&M vice president, “university officials are concerned about fringe and hate groups descending on campuses for the purpose of disruption,” reports CNN. “As one of the stewards for protecting and enhancing the brand, this is particularly troubling to me as the influx of these outside groups may connote … an environment of acceptance by our campus when none are actually our students or faculty.”
Texas A&M cancels event; Wiginton files complaint with ACLU and considers legal action
The university allowed Wiginton to reserve an outdoor space on campus for a white nationalist rally planned for Sept. 11, 2017, but ultimately canceled his reservation due to concerns about public and student safety. He filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union and was reportedly consulting with private attorneys and considering legal action against the university.