Cameron Padgett wants at least $75,000 in damages, and a court order forcing Michigan State University to let white supremacist Richard Spencer speak on campus.
“It’s been kind of a struggle,” says Padgett, a 23-year-old student at Georgia State University, who’s also been arranging campus lectures for Spencer at schools like Auburn University and the University of Florida. Those attempts have not gone smoothly. “Everyone says they’re for free speech, but when it comes down to it, this country’s moving away from that.”
In July, Padgett says he tried to rent an MSU conference room for Spencer to give a talk about his "alt-right" philosophy, which “advances European racial interests … and [criticizes] free trade agreements, radical feminism, sexual deviancy, and the ideology of multiculturalism,” according to the lawsuit.
The idea, he says, is to use Spencer as a sort of litmus test for free speech on campuses around the country. He choose MSU, he says, because a friend told him the school’s rental policies didn’t require you be a member of a campus organization, unlike some other universities.
But MSU said no.
“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,” MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said in a statement August 17. “This decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville last weekend. While we remain firm in our commitment to freedom of expression, our first obligation is to the safety and security of our students and our community.”
On the one hand, Padgett says, he gets it.
“Yeah, I can understand where they’re coming from,” he says. “But you know, it’s arguable that the police didn’t do their job as well as they could have in Charlottesville.”
And most of the violence at campus protests, he claims, is coming “from radical left, communist types of people that just burn stuff down. I think that Michigan State has plenty of security to be able to control it.”
In Charlottesville, hundreds of members of the "alt-right" – a movement that's been described as a mix of racism, white nationalism, and populism – marched with torches on the University of Virginia campus, chanting slogans like “Jews will not replace us.” A 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when James Fields, a man who reportedly “idolized Hitler,” allegedly drove a car into a crowd of protesters.
Padgett’s lawsuit, however, argues that blocking Spencer from campus because of possible violence, amounts to “discrimination in the form of a heckler’s veto.”
He won a similar suit against Auburn University back in April, after the school attempted to cancel Spencer’s speech on campus. A federal judge in Alabama ruled that Auburn didn’t “produce evidence that Mr. Spencer’s speech is likely to incite or produce imminent lawless action.” What’s more, the judge wrote, local police had enough advance notice to provide security, and “Mr. Spencer has provided $2 million in insurance and has paid for the extra security necessary to cover this event.”
Padgett says Auburn University paid him $29,000 as a settlement.
But MSU released a statement Monday doubling down on its decision not to host Spencer.
“We are aware of the lawsuit,” Kent Cassella, the school’s senior vice president for communications said in an email. “Michigan State University decided to deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent space on campus to accommodate a speaker after consultation with law enforcement officials. The decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville. While we remain firm in our commitment to freedom of expression, our first obligation is to the safety and security of our students and our community.”
Padgett’s suit also asks the court to let Spencer speak at MSU without having to pay for “police protection or posting bond or providing insurance for the event,” while still requiring to provide Spencer with security.
The strength of Padgett’s case will come down to two factual questions, according to Richard Primus, professor at the University of Michigan law school. “Number one, what’s MSU’s policy [on who can rent a campus space?] And number two, is MSU’s fear of violence, even if they tried to provide security, a well-founded fear?”
Richard Spencer did not immediately return requests for comments. Padgett’s attorney, Kyle Bristow of Clinton Township, declined to comment beyond a press release about the lawsuit.
In one of his most well-known addresses, Spencer opened with “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” at a recent gathering of white supremacists. “America was, until this past generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation. It is our inheritance. And it belongs to us," he told the crowd to sustained applause.
When asked what he’d say to a black or minority student at MSU about Spencer’s desire to speak on campus, “I would say, life’s uncomfortable,” Padgett says. “And I’m not even saying I agree or disagree with anything necessarily. But you live in a country with a First Amendment, and he can speak. You’re not being harmed physically or anything like that…. I mean, I don’t get how people get so emotional about words.”