The topic of free speech on American university campuses has been increasingly relevant following student protests of controversial, and typically conservative, speakers — often prompting universities to act.
In August, Penn State President Eric Barron blocked white supremacist Richard Spencer, saying he was “not welcome on our campus,” as reported by The Daily Collegian — a decision consistent with several other universities, including Auburn University.
In a public statement on Penn State News, Barron cited “the likelihood of disruption and violence, not the content” as the reason for his decision to bar Spencer from speaking on campus.
The Georgia State University student who attempted to book the event, Cameron Padgett, is suing Penn State for violating his first amendment rights by refusing to rent him space, as reported by The Daily Collegian.
“I think it is a publicity stunt for the kid that is doing it,” Aidan Mattis, a founding member of Turning Point USA at Penn State, a conservative non-profit, said.
Publicity stunt or not, this is not the first time that Padgett has sued a university.
Padgett filed a lawsuit against Auburn University for violating his first amendment rights after the administration rejected his request to rent a room on campus.
A federal judge overturned Auburn’s decision to bar Spencer from speaking just hours before the scheduled event in April, resulting in Spencer being permitted to speak on campus. In May, Auburn University lawyers agreed to pay almost $29,000 to settle the case.
Now, Padgett is suing Penn State for the same reasons he sued Auburn.
"It’s an unfortunate thing but not a surprise at all,” Fernando Mendez, president of the Penn State College Democrats, said. “This is something we’ve seen at Auburn, we’ve seen it happen at the University of Florida, and I think it is going to continue to happen at all the other universities that Padgett has applied to speak at."
Mendez (senior-political science and public relations) referenced the seemingly systematic nature of Padgett’s bookings at universities across the nation, and said that Penn State’s decision to bar Spencer is “the correct decision to make.”
“[Spencer] is somebody who is purposely targeting communities and trying to incite violence, and has done so in the past,” Mendez said.
The Penn State College Republicans condemned “the hateful rhetoric, encompassed White Supremacy, bigotry and misogyny that Richard Spencer advertises” via an email from Reagan McCarthy, THON chair for organization.
However, they balked at Barron’s citation of the likelihood of violence as the main reason for blocking Spencer.
“We are not sure that damage control is a strong enough excuse to ban a speaker from campus,” McCarthy (junior-political science and broadcast journalism) said. “A heckler's veto is a subpar excuse to bar a speaker from campus.”
Gregory Carvajal, secretary of the College Progressives of Penn State and Executive Liaison for Council of Commonwealth Student Governments, found Barron’s reasoning to be a legitimate reason to cancel the event.
“Just saying ‘censorship’ is not actually an argument. The truth is, [conservatives] know that if he comes here there is going to be violence initiated by antifa or by insane neo-Nazis. Either way, it doesn’t matter. We don’t want that. That is what we are trying to avoid,” Carvajal (junior-political science and sociology) said.
Carvajal also referenced the larger debate about free speech on campus, arguing that it is a false dichotomy.
“The problem is, the way it is framed, is if you are not an absolute free speech person, then you believe in censorship — is essentially the way it is framed,” Carvajal said.
Some Penn State students who identify as conservative agreed with the university’s decision to block Spencer.
“Penn State denying [Padgett] a room and a platform for Richard Spencer is entirely a private contract issue,” Mattis (sophomore-economics and medieval studies) said. “It would be a very different situation however, had [a Penn State student] attempted to book this room.”
In referencing who has the right to host a speaker on a university’s campus, Mattis touched on an important point in this conversation.
In December 2016, hundreds of students at Texas A&M University protested a speech given by Spencer. A private individual booked and paid for the venue at the university, and Texas A&M later changed its policy to require that external parties wishing to book university facilities must be sponsored by “a recognized Texas A&M student organization, a Texas A&M University academic or administrative unit or from an A&M System member,” according to the university’s website.
Many students said they would not be opposed to such a policy being implemented at Penn State.
“The decision to revoke Richard Spencer’s right to speak at the Pennsylvania State University would be different if a faculty member or student organization, like Turning Point, were to sponsor them to speak here,” Ronald Contrares, campus activist and Unasur Chair for Comunidad Andina, said.
However, it should be noted that Turning Point has never invited Spencer to speak at Penn State.
The Penn State College Republicans believe that such a policy is at least worth consideration by the student body, McCarthy said.
Student reactions towards controversial speakers such as Spencer reveal differing Penn State student conceptions of free speech.
“The Penn State College Republicans stand with other student organizations and firmly condemn Richard Spencer's hateful message; however, it is healthy to hear viewpoints that we do not necessarily agree with or condone,” McCarthy said.
Mattis agreed with the idea McCarthy expressed, that the university needs to be a place where differing viewpoints and ideologies can interact.
Political figures have lectured campus before.
“If we are going to be a university that purports itself to be a top 50 university — a place where ideas are exchanged and students can really come and challenge themselves — we can’t tell people they can’t come and speak here because they hurt people’s feelings,” Mattis said.
Contrares disagreed, arguing that Richard Spencer’s views are not conducive to a healthy, intellectual environment.
“When [a speaker’s] discourse is based on the idea of fueling violence and fueling ethnic hatred, right, you are not conducive towards the intentions of a university.” Contrares said.
Carvajal asked if white supremacy is an intellectual discussion, arguing that Spencer uses pseudo-science to bolster his argument.
“Who at a college, an intellectual institution… is here to discuss whether we should have a ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing?’ Like who is talking about that?” Carvajal said.
Mendez expressed his love of Penn State and called for unity in the face of influences that do not care about the university.
“When it comes to speakers or other influences from the outside, we need to take care, because they just see Penn State as a venue, and we’ll be the ones left here picking up the pieces. At the end of the day, we’re all Penn Staters,” Mendez said.
Mattis agreed with Mendez’ sentiment, calling for unity in moving forward.
"We just need to have a little bit more respect for each other, a little bit of a more respectful dialogue,” Mattis said.
Penn State declined to comment on this article, as it is not the university’s policy to comment on pending litigation, senior director of the Office of Strategic Communications Lisa Powers said via email.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Padgett's school. The story bel…
Eric Barron made a bold move in not letting Richard Spencer speak.