A “White Lives Matter” rally scheduled at Texas A&M University for Sept. 11 has been called off over “risks of threat to life and safety,” the school says.
The white nationalist rally, organized by former Texas A&M student Preston Wiginton, was not sponsored by any campus organizations, the university says. But the university, which is required to observe First Amendment rights, had allowed Wiginton to reserve space in a public area on campus.
It wasn’t the first such event. In December, Wiginton brought white separatist Richard Spencer to speak at the campus in a rally at which counterprotesters greatly outnumbered white supremacists.
Wiginton said he would bring Spencer back on Sept. 11 for an all-day rally. The university denied him access to buildings, under a new policy requiring a student sponsor for facility reservations, so he scheduled the event in a plaza on campus. He promoted the rally with a press release titled “Today Charlottesville, Tomorrow Texas A&M,” the university says.
Over the weekend, one counterprotester died and 19 people were injured in a car attack after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus,” the university said in its statement. “Additionally, the daylong event would provide disruption to our class schedules and to student, faculty and staff movement (both bus system and pedestrian).”
Before the cancellation was announced, students at the university were already planning a counterprotest called “BTHO Hate” (that is, “beat the hell outta hate”).
Texas legislators had put bipartisan pressure on the school administration to denounce or cancel the event, Houston Public Media reports:
“Word of the cancellation came hours after Dallas Democratic Rep. Helen Giddings gave a House floor speech while nearly all of the chamber’s 150 members stood beside her. She urged university administrators to ‘unequivocally denounce and fight against this violent group’ adding ‘all of us in the state of Texas want to say with one voice, Texas will not stand for hate.’
“Rep. Paul Workman, an Austin Republican, added that a petition being circulated for A&M graduates in the House was attempting to ‘keep this from happening on our campus.’ The chamber then held a moment of silence for victims killed and injured in Charlottesville.
“Similar sentiments came from the Texas Senate, which also held its own moment of silence.”
Public universities, unlike private institutions, are bound by the First Amendment, and several attempts to restrict speech on public campuses have been struck down as unconstitutional, as The Dallas Morning News reported in December.
There is a high bar for schools to clear if they’re claiming a threat to public safety, as Inside Higher Ed reported this April, after the University of California, Berkeley, attempted to stop Ann Coulter from speaking and Auburn University tried to block an appearance by Spencer.
“Legal experts and academics say that public colleges and universities need to prove a real threat and meet a high standard of proof before invoking student and attendee welfare as a reason to curtail expression protected by the First Amendment,” Insider Higher Ed wrote.
Texas A&M says its “support of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech cannot be questioned,” noting that Spencer was allowed to speak there in December.
“However, in this case, circumstances and information relating to the event have changed and the risks of threat to life and safety compel us to cancel the event,” the school says.
The university says the cancellation comes after “consultation with law enforcement and considerable study.”
Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, says Texas A&M might find it challenging to defend the cancellation of the event on safety grounds.
“I think it would be pretty difficult to prove that [the press release] was a threat of violence,” Shibley says.
“Generally when we’re talking about shutting down speech because of threats of violence, it has to be an imminent threat of violence that is also likely to occur,” he says, noting that the rally is still nearly a month away and the exact significance of the press release’s title isn’t “obvious.”
Shibley says it is possible that the university has more reason to be wary than just the comparison to Charlottesville.
“One of the important things when you’re looking at this is to recognize that sometimes law enforcement does have information the rest of us aren’t privy to,” he says. “But if they’re using that to make decisions, then they’ll have to explain what that information was … if not to the public, then certainly if they’re challenged in court.”