University of Michigan threatened with lawsuit over white supremacist speech

DETROIT — The University of Michigan has until 5 p.m. next Friday to agree to let white supremacist Richard Spencer speak on campus or a federal lawsuit will be filed, his lawyer said Friday.

In a letter sent Friday to Pres. Mark Schlissel, Kyle Bristow, who represents Cameron Padgett, an organizer for Spencer’s speeches, demanded a decision be made in the next week. The organization, the National Policy Institute, filed a request seeking speaking space at U-M late last month.

“I have been following with interest recently-published newspaper articles about the University of Michigan’s response to Padgett’s simple request — which was made on October 27, 2017 —, and I am disgusted and dismayed that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is being flippantly disregarded by you and your colleagues because of the political viewpoint of the speakers who would attend the proposed event and the heckler’s veto which is being utilized by left-wing individuals who are detractors of Padgett and Spencer,” Bristow wrote in the letter, which he also sent to the Free Press. “Regent Ron Weiser, for example, described Spencer as ‘disgusting,’ and Regent Andrea Newman suggested that she ‘would be happy to defend a lawsuit’ if sued for wantonly infringing upon my client’s right to free speech.

“The University of Michigan has until Friday, November 24, 2017, at 5:00 p.m. to publicly acknowledge that Padgett can rent a room on its campus at which Padgett and Spencer will speak, or else I will make Regent Newman “happy” by filing suit in federal court and seeking a court order for the same — in addition to a significant money judgment.

“Violations of our people’s sacred right to free speech will not whatsoever be tolerated by me. I will use any and all resources as my disposal to see this matter through to a just and equitable conclusion.”

Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the university has not yet made a decision, but continues to carefully consider it.

“The university will carefully consider the request, paying close attention to the safety and security of our community,” he said.

Multiple groups across campus have come out against U-M letting Spencer speak.

Earlier this year, the group requested space at Michigan State University, which turned down the request.

“After consultation with law enforcement officials, Michigan State University has decided to deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent space on campus to accommodate a speaker,” the university said in a statement then. “This decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville.”

Spencer’s group has filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have that blockage overturned. Spencer’s group has also filed a lawsuit against Ohio State University, which also turned down a request for speaking space.

Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University, said courts have established that the overriding principle for public universities when it comes to speech on campus is neutrality toward the content.

“Once it allows access it cannot discriminate on the basis of content,” he said, meaning that the university can’t prohibit racist speech and allow equality speech.

Even if a public university fears that the speech will incite violence, Sedler said, it must allow it if there’s advance notice. The university must protect the speaker and can use law enforcement to prevent violence, he added.

U-M has had controversial speakers in the past, including earlier in October, when Charles Murray appeared on campus. Hecklers shouted at him during the speech and protested his speech. No arrests were made.


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