University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel said Tuesday he made “the difficult decision” to begin discussions between U-M and representatives of white supremacist Richard Spencer to determine whether Spencer will be allowed to rent space to speak on the Ann Arbor campus.
While no one at U-M invited Spencer to campus and no university-affiliated group is sponsoring his request, Schlissel said that, as a public university, “the law and our commitment to free speech forbid us from declining a speaker based on the presumed content of speech.
“But we can and will impose limits on time, place and manner of a speaking engagement to protect the safety of our U-M community. If we cannot assure a reasonably safe setting for the event, we will not allow it to go forward.”
In an email message to all faculty, staff and students on the Ann Arbor campus, Schlissel said, “When I accepted the presidency of this great university three and a half years ago, I did so in part based on my appreciation and respect for our shared values — that we can’t be excellent without being diverse and that all individuals regardless of their background deserve full inclusion in our community and an equal opportunity to thrive.
“We now face a very difficult test of our ability to uphold these values. This is a test we did not welcome, but it’s one that we must face together.”
Regent Mark Bernstein said, “The only thing worse than Richard Spencer being on our campus is stopping him from being on our campus. We could do the easy thing. Others have. We could ban Richard Spencer. Everyone would celebrate. The board would be cheered. President Schlissel would be applauded. But we would be dancing on our own grave.”
Regent Shauna Ryder Diggs said, “First, I want to be very clear. I support free speech not hate speech. Equality, inclusion and civil discourse. Race, gender, orientation or religion. We know what he stands for. I disagree. I’m in support of the president’s decision. We all have a choice. Attend, ignore or peacefully protest.”
Regent Denise Ilitch said, “I fully and adamantly reject the hateful white supremacy espoused by Richard Spencer. I reject his anti-Semitic, racist views and his hate of LGBT citizens as well as many others. Unfortunately, I do not agree with the University of Michigan administration. I agree with the position of Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Penn State, The University of North Carolina and Auburn University in denying his request to speak on their campuses.”
Regent Andrea Fischer Newman said, “This university should not allow itself to be cowed by the voices of bigotry and hatred. Those voices will convict themselves by their own words. Our principles will not be weakened by those who do not share them but rather strengthened and tempered by our resiliency in defending them.”
Regent Andrew C. Richner said, “I agree with this approach and I share the views of colleagues in support of that position. The First Amendment does not require anyone to listen.”
Regent Ron Weiser said, “The best thing that the students of the University of Michigan can do is ignore this speaker. Do not give him an audience. Let the story be that our university upheld the right to free speech, but no one was interested in hearing these vile and hateful remarks.”
Schlissel said he grappled with how to distance his personal feelings regarding the request from the important safety considerations he must weigh as president. “I recognize that an appearance by Spencer will cause genuine emotional hurt to many members of our community,” he said.
“I personally detest and reject the hateful white supremacy and white nationalism expressed by Mr. Spencer as well as his racist, anti-Semitic and otherwise bigoted views, as do the regents and the entire leadership of this university. Many followers who show up at his rallies share his repugnant beliefs and should be shunned by our community.
“His views, and those of his organization and its followers, are antithetical to everything we stand for at the University of Michigan. We strive for intellectual rigor and equal opportunity for all who seek to learn, teach and conduct research for the public good.”
The inquiry about renting space at U-M came in an email Oct. 30 from Cameron Padgett, a representative of Spencer’s National Policy Institute. The university has been considering the request, and the president said Tuesday he has consulted widely with many members of the university community.
As the university moves forward with the request, Schlissel said his foremost priority is safety.
“We will continue to rely on a thorough assessment of safety considerations by our Division of Public Safety and Security. We will insist upon appropriate and lawful requirements on the time, place and manner of his speech in ways that our experts conclude are most conducive to public safety for the entire community, including those who are not a part of our learning community.”
Schlissel also said denying the request would provide even more attention to the speaker and his cause, and allow him to claim a court victory.
“Those who would use public spaces as venues to promote hate are emboldened by denials they can fight in court. Their formula is clear: Request to use public space. Sue if not allowed to speak. Claim oppression by the state to stoke outrage. Use each moment as a rallying cry for their views.”
“As painful as it is to allow this speaker to rent our space, a democratic society without free speech is unimaginable,” Schlissel said.
The U-M president urged the university to ignore Spencer if he does come to campus.
“We can ignore him, reject the hate and evil he espouses and offer support to those he targets with his racist and discriminatory views,” Schlissel said.
“We can deprive him of the attention he needs to survive and deny him the crowds he craves. Imagine the power of a room mostly empty, with his only audience being a few followers surrounded by hundreds of empty seats.
“We can support each other, speak out and protest in different venues. We know that many students, faculty and staff might want to hold events of their own that reflect U-M values, away from the venue Mr. Spencer will rent. Once a time and place have been identified, we will work with our community to host these types of events.”
Schlissel concluded his message to the university community by saying, “All of us can unite against the evils of racism, anti-Semitism, discrimination and those who seek to degrade and diminish others.
“The University of Michigan is home to our nation’s strongest and best academic community — with students, faculty, staff and graduates who care deeply about their fellow Wolverines and who strive to lead in a better world.
“No one who rents space on our campus can take that away from us.”