University of Cincinnati hasn't reached a decision about white nationalist speaker

Posted at 2:38 PM, Oct 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-13 01:04:53-04

CINCINNATI -- The University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees debated behind closed doors for hours Thursday, but did not announce whether they planned to allow a white nationalist to speak on campus.

White supremacist Richard Spencer will either make an October appearance at the University of Cincinnati or sue it for violating his First Amendment rights, lawyer Kyle Bristow said last month.

Unlike countries such as Germany and France, whose laws against hate speech and symbology were prompted by the lingering wounds of World War II, the United States does not have laws against racial, religious or gendered hate speech of the kind Spencer and other "alt-right" personalities such as Milo Yiannopoulos espouse. However, First Amendment rights do not extend to "fighting words" or speech that incites violence; universities' best chance at denying him a pulpit, wrote a Washington Post contributor, is to prove he could present a security risk.

UC spokesman Greg Vehr said in September the university had not entered into a contract with Spencer and would assess "various safety and logistical considerations" related to the possible visit.

Spencer helped organize the Charlottesville, Virginia white supremacist rally that ended with the death of anti-white supremacist protester Heather Heyer. His speaking engagements had previously been rejected by Texas A&M, the University of Florida and Ohio State on grounds of ensuring student safety; similar legal threats to the ones he has made in Cincinnati prompted UF to reconsider and -- unhappily -- grant him a platform for Oct. 19.

UC student Kyra Watkins, who is black, said she recognized Spencer's First Amendment right to voice his beliefs but added that he could expect pushback from the student body.

"Unsettling for personal accounts but I am a believer of the First Amendment … as long as the university can adequately maintain the protection of students, protesters and those who are going to the rally then logistically there's nothing I can say against it,” Watkins said.

Other campus groups have made it clear that Spencer is not welcome. 

The University of Cincinnati College Republicans confirmed they had not invited him.

"We have no relationship with Mr. Spencer and have zero interest in inviting him to our campus to speak," the organization's executive boardwrote on Facebook. "The University of Cincinnati College Republicans believe in an inclusive and respectful environment in which to promote conservative values on campus. Mr. Spencer and the alt-right do not share those values."

Still, Bristow said Spencer has a First Amendment right to appear and share his message despite the resistance of any segment of the administration or student body. Any public university that chooses not to host him will be sued.

Bristow emphasized his commitment to pursuing legal action by sharing a motion he filed against Michigan State University, which in early September cited safety concerns in rejecting a request for Spencer to appear.

"It is alarming that, in the United States of America, where citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of speech, that governmental actors are now coddling and catering to these antifa terrorists, and that's exactly what they are. They are trying to use force and threaten force to infringe on the rights of others, and we're not standing for that," Bristow said.

Bristow is also a white supremacist. Both he and Spencer have been categorized as extremists by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

WCPO Web Editor Sarah Walsh contributed to this report.