In April, a federal judge in Alabama barred Auburn University from blocking white nationalist Richard Spencer from speaking, saying there was no evidence that he advocates violence. Auburn had canceled the event, citing safety concerns, after initially saying it could go forward as an exercise of free speech.
Spencer had been among speakers lined up for the now-canceled event at A&M. He was also the speaker at the December event in A&M's Memorial Student Center, where he told an audience of more than 400 people that "America, at the end of the day, belongs to white men … This country does belong to white people — culturally, socially and politically."
Rudder Plaza is one of several outdoor free-speech zones on campus.
“I don’t care if Black Lives Matter is there or if the American Communist Party is there. Why am I not allowed there?” Wiginton said.
A&M’s news release Monday — its only official statement on the matter — cited several reasons, including safety concerns in the wake of race-related violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and disruption of class schedules and pedestrian and bus movement.
"You can't say that because the Charlottesville rally turned violent, another group's rally will turn violent because it shares the same viewpoint," said Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based group that advocates for free speech and religious liberty at colleges and universities.
The argument that anticipated disruption is grounds for cancellation doesn't hold legal water, said Geoffrey Stone, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has written extensively on free speech.
“The anticipation of what might happen is not necessarily what will happen. It’s easy to say we’re afraid of disruption to avoid saying we don’t want the message,” Stone said, adding that opponents of marches for civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights have also employed such tactics.
“The question is to what extent could the university reasonably control the disruption,” he said. “It could limit the size of the event, limit the hours, put up barriers. Fundamentally, it’s the responsibility of the university to do whatever it can reasonably do to let the event take place. They do have a right to prevent events where there is a clear and present danger, which usually means waiting until the moment is upon you. You might have to use tear gas or whatever you have to do to disperse people. You can’t prove it up in advance.”
Stone said universities are permitted to require outside groups to be sponsored by student, faculty or staff organizations before securing permission for an event on campus. The University of Texas mandates such sponsorship, whether the events are indoors or outdoors, said spokesman J.B. Bird.