White supremacist Richard Spencer had rented Foy Hall’s 430-seat auditorium for two hours Tuesday, and when time was up Auburn University officials invited those who remained to leave.
For some members of Spencer’s supporters, that meant walking near hundreds of Auburn students and a much smaller number of anti-fascist protesters who had waited through the evening behind police barricades. Among the last to leave were black-clad representatives of the Traditionalist Workers Party, a white nationalist and anti-Semitic group, who were armed with helmets and black plywood shields bearing their group’s pitchfork logo.
A handful of these “alt-right” activists clustered together against the catcalls of counter demonstrators jeering at them just a few feet away. There was pushing as the assemblage of racists, counter-demonstrators and underclassmen approached the edge of campus. Then the alt-right activists took off running.
“They’re running!” someone shouted. And suddenly everyone was running. “This is great!” one young man in the crowd shouted to his friend as they jumped over the university’s landscaping. A crowd of well more than 100, largely made up of students, chased them to Toomer’s Cornerbefore scattering.
Thus ended the kind of evening Auburn officials had sought to avoid. Georgia take note: This show is on tour and could be coming our way.
The Anti-Defamation League claimswhite supremacists, “emboldened by the 2016 elections and current political climate,” are targeting college campuses around the nation. The ADL has cataloged more than 100 instances of such groups “fliering” campuses since last September, with the bulk of them coming since January.
It’s already happened to a limited extent in Georgia. White nationalist leaflets have been found at the University of Georgia and there is an ongoing paper war of racist and counter-racist fliers around the Georgia State University campus in downtown Atlanta.
Spencer’s Auburn appearance was a step up from fliers and was ostensibly part of a tour of campuses he announced after a controversial appearance at Texas A&M University in December.
What Spencer said at Auburn is immaterial. His oft-interrupted speech was an extemporaneous mess about whether recognizing one’s “whiteness” was more vital than having a favorite shampoo.
The most exciting part was when he suggested college football should be banned because it distracts from developing a racial consciousness. He just about lost the room with that one.
More important to him was the fight he won to be there in the first place and the higher profile it gave the appearance. Amid building student unrest, university officials last week announced they were revoking permission for Spencer to speak, citing campus security concerns.
A delighted Spencer could not claim to be an aggrieved party, telling the student newspaperthat administrators would “rue the day” they pulled the plug and promising the event would be even bigger.
Auburn’s legal strategy backfires
In a whirlwind of legal maneuvering, Atlanta real estate attorney Sam Dickson, an avowed white supremacist himself, filed papers on Spencer’s behalf challenging the university’s decision. Within hours, U.S. District Court Judge Keith Watkins in Montgomery issued a preliminary injunction ordering Auburn to allow the event to go on as scheduled.
“While Mr. Spencer’s beliefs and message are controversial,” Watkins wrote in his order, “Auburn presented no evidence that Mr. Spencer advocates violence.”
Watkins said the law in this matter is clear. Government institutions, like public universities, cannot limit speech except in cases where the speaker is “inciting or producing imminent lawless action.”
Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, said Auburn officials erred by trying to cancel the event. First, it flies in opposition to established First Amendment rights. Second, it handed Spencer a talking point.
“Richard Spencer will use this event at Auburn to catapult himself to events at other universities,” she said. Sure enough, after the order came down, a breathless Spencer took to Twitter with a video announcing the victory.
Disruption for students
Meanwhile on campus, students felt whipsawed.
Most had only heard of Spencer’s visit a week earlier and were anxious about clashes between his followers and anti-fascist agitators, known as “antifas.” A dozen or so antifas, looking like a cross between ninjas and a marching band, came from Atlanta to counter the alt-right and, in their words, “punch Nazis.”
All of this came on the heels of anti-Semitic leaflets from an alleged “white student union” group that had appeared on campus earlier in the month.
Brooks said Auburn released boilerplate statements about the white supremacist speech on campus, rather than a full-throated condemnation with context to educate students on the issues.
“It has to be something beyond university public relations,” she said. “It has to be a serious statement that speaks to the issue. I don’t know why they can’t do this.”
Georgia’s plan not yet put to the test
The more forceful and creative responses at Auburn came from students, rather than administrators.
Across campus, students countered Spencer with a hastily arranged music festival and free pizza. Organizer Sarah Pitts, a senior from Birmingham, said students raised money, got the bands and filed the paperwork in a little more than a day. What was happening in Foy Hall was out of their hands.
“Because of freedom of speech we do have to let him speak,” she said. “But we do believe what he speaks about conflicts with the Auburn Creed.”
That creed extols hard work, education, lawfulness and “the human touch, which cultivates sympathy with my fellow man and mutual helpfulness and brings happiness for all.”
Auburn administrators took some criticism early for not coming out with stronger condemnations of the extremist agitating on campus, but their tools appear limited.
ADL Campus Affairs Director Elissa Buxbaum praised Auburn for its handling of “a very difficult situation” and said it will be pored over as universities consider their options in the future.
“This is going to be a case that we talk about each time it happens, and hopefully each time it will get better and we can learn from it,” she said.
It is difficult to determine if Georgia will be more or less successful.
In March, the Board of Regents adopted a new “freedom of expression” policy that shepherds demonstrations into “public forum areas” if the speaker is not enrolled or employed by the university system or if the demonstration involves a large group. The policy explicitly states “content or viewpoint” cannot be a consideration when determining how to handle a speaker.
It’s unclear if this rule would apply to a person like Spencer, who rented a space on campus and would hardly consider his presentation a demonstration.
Whether Georgia is really ready remains to be seen.
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