On March 5, 2018, opposing groups of protesters clashed on the campus of Michigan State University in connection with a speech by conservative activist Richard Spencer.
Mr. Spencer is the president of the National Policy Institute (NPI) and a self-described white nationalist. In recent years, he and his followers have frequently made media headlines for rallies and other events organized in both public and private venues across the United States, including at higher education institutions.
At Michigan State University (MSU), Mr. Spencer had not been invited to speak on campus, but instead had requested to give a speech. Initially, MSU officials denied the request, purportedly due to the risk of violent clashes that have previously occurred at Mr. Spencer’s events. However, the university later allowed Mr. Spencer to rent space on campus after a lawsuit was brought against MSU on first amendment grounds. The university gave Mr. Spencer a space on the edge of campus and scheduled him to speak on March 5, when fewer students were expected to be on campus due to the spring recess.
On the day of the event, hundreds of protesters outside the building where Mr. Spencer was scheduled to speak, played music and chanted slogans opposing his speech. Members of a group known as the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), allegedly supporters of Mr. Spencer, marched to the campus to attend the event. Almost immediately after their arrival, violent clashes broke out between the two groups. Media sources indicate that some protesters used weapons during the clashes. Riot police on the scene tried to escort TWP members into the event space, while others attempted to break up the clashing protesters. At least 24 protesters were arrested.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about violent clashes during a campus protest. While members of the higher education and civil society at large have a right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly on campus, the exercise of such rights does not extend to violent activity. Such violence puts members of higher education communities and the public at large at risk of physical harm and undermines institutional autonomy. University and state authorities have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to avert violent altercations, ensure campus safety, and protect the nonviolent exercise of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly.