Universities React to Safety Concerns Following Violence in Charlottesville
For colleges across the U.S., the recent violence in Charlottesville at a white supremacist rally near the University of Virginia campus poses a new threat to students’ safety.
For universities across the U.S., the recent violence in Charlottesville at a white supremacist rally near the University of Virginia campus poses a new threat to students’ safety.
The rally left college campuses bracing for more clashes between alt-right extremists and protesters who oppose them. It also left schools in a tight bind as they try to ensure campus safety in the face of recruiting efforts by white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups, and to balance that with freedom of speech.
On college campuses, far-right extremist groups see fertile ground to spread their messages and recruit followers. They are targeted for a simple reason: They embrace diversity, tolerance and social justice. These values are soft targets for the alt-right, and college students are typically curious and receptive to new, even radical, ideas.
Universities, by definition, welcome free speech and philosophies of every type. Publicly funded schools cannot legally prohibit free speech.
Canceled Rallies Stir Debate, Legal Action
Last week, University of Florida denied a request for white nationalist leader Richard Spencer to rent space on campus for an event next month. The decision to deny the request made by the National Policy Institute, an institution headquartered in Northern Virginia of which Spencer is president, was explained in a Facebook post from UF President W. Kent Fuchs.
“Amid serious concerns for safety, we have decided to deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent event space at the University of Florida,” Fuchs said in the statement. “This decision was made after assessing potential risks with campus, community, state and federal law enforcement officials following violent clashes in Charlottesville, and continued calls online and in social media for similar violence in Gainesville such as those decreeing: ‘The Next Battlefield is in Florida.’”
Spencer and his supporters are promising court challenges.
“Should the National Policy Institute challenge this legally, we are prepared to vigorously defend the president’s decision,” Janine Sikes, a UF spokeswoman, told The Washington Post.
This week, Penn State University released a written statement by the university’s president which stated that the white nationalist leader, Spencer, “is not welcome on [their] campus.” In his statement, Eric J. Barron also denounced Spencer’s “abhorrent” views, but said the decision to bar him from speaking on campus came strictly from a security standpoint.
Texas A&M University canceled plans on Monday for a rally led by alt-right extremists that was scheduled for September 11. The school said in a statement that, after consulting law enforcement and "considerable study," the decision to cancel the event was due to concerns about the safety of its students, faculty, staff and the public.
The move is sure to prompt questions about its legality, however, since it is a public university that can't block an event just because of the views of its organizer.
"Texas A&M's support of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech cannot be questioned," the university said in a statement. "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."
Confederate Statues Cause Safety Concerns
However, Texas A&M also announced this week that they will not be removing the campus’s statue of Lawrence Sullivan "Sul" Ross, a former campus president, governor and Confederate general.
"Anyone who knows the true history of Lawrence Sullivan Ross would never ask his statue to be removed," Chancellor John Sharp said in a statement. "It will not be removed."
The announcement came just hours after the University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves announced the removal of four statues there, saying the Confederate monuments had "become symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism."
The UT Austin statues — depicting Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, John H. Reagan and former Gov. James Stephen Hogg — were removed Sunday overnight. Three of those (Lee, Johnston and Reagan) will be added to the collection at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History for "scholarly study," Fenves said in his announcement.
On Tuesday evening, hundreds of people gathered at a Silent Sam statue at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to demand removal of the Confederate monument.
The crowd reportedly chanted “Tear it down!” and, at one point, marched to UNC President Margaret Spellings’ residence, but the rally remained mostly peaceful. Officials at the university said there were two arrests at the protest.
The rally put UNC in the position of protecting a statue that many say now poses a serious safety threat. It followed two days of debates between university officials and Gov. Roy Cooper about who has the authority to move the statue.
Silent Sam’s fate is still up in the air. UNC officials sent a letter to Cooper this week asking him to convene the North Carolina Historical Commission to decide whether or not it would be removed. The letter, signed by Spellings, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and others, pointed out that the statue’s presence creates “significant safety and security threats.”
A 2015 state law prevents removing, relocating or altering monuments, memorials, plaques and other markers that are on public property without permission from the N.C. Historical Commission. But Cooper said an exception in the law would allow the university to remove it if they have imminent safety concerns.
Get Educated, Take Action to Ensure Safety
For additional information on how to deal with alt-right rallies and recruiting efforts coming to a campus near you, check out the Southern Poverty Law Center's published paper, The Alt-Right on Campus: What Students Should Know. They provide helpful tips on how to peacefully oppose white supremacist speakers on campus and explain the alt-right movement's ideals and important leaders.