“He doesn’t even go here” yelled someone in the audience of James E. Foy Hall during Richard Spencer’s speech at Auburn University on Tuesday, April 18. Spencer—a self-described “white nationalist” who has gained prominence recently, including for his support for President Donald Trump and for getting punched on live television on Inauguration Day—speaks often about controversial topics. At Auburn, many groups gathered to protest his being allowed to share his ideas on a college campus.
Before this controversial event could even take place, it was scheduled, cancelled, and then rescheduled via court ruling. A week before the talk, the Auburn Police Division and many student government groups “…articulated legitimate concerns for the safety and security of [Auburn’s] campus,” as stated in a Letter from the Provost and the Chief Diversity Officer at Auburn. This led Auburn to cancel Spencer’s speech.
Cameron Padgett, a supporter of Spencer and not an Auburn student, spent $700 to book Foy Hall for Spencer’s speech and was disappointed with Auburn’s decision. Padgett “…filed a motion in court Tuesday seeking an injunction to force the University to allow him to speak.” Since Auburn is a public university, the case was sent to a federal judge. The judge ruled in Padgett’s favor, basing the decision on the first amendment. After paying extra fees to Auburn security, Padgett secured Spencer his spot to speak.
My brother John Whaley, a freshman at Auburn, didn’t know that Auburn had canceled classes Tuesday afternoon due to the event, so he walked through the protests on his way to class. Even if he had known about the canceled class, he said, he “…would not have gone… I think a protest just gives [Spencer] extra media coverage because it makes him coming to speak a bigger deal.”
Many far-right speakers at universities across the nation have sparked controversy recently. Former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos canceled an appearance at UC Berkeley in February, and the resulting violence and protests cost Berkeley $100,000 in damages. At least six people were injured in the protests surrounding Yiannopoulos’ appearance.
Violent protests on colleges are often not caused by actual students of the universities. In Whaley’s opinion, if protestors hadn’t come to Auburn, then the event wouldn’t have made national news. “But since Antifa made a big deal about coming to protest, a lot of people here thought there was going to be some sort of showdown like there was at Berkeley.”
“Antifa” is an abbreviated term for Anti-Fascists, and the “Antifa” group based out of Atlanta is one of the groups that drove to Auburn to protest. They put on masks and dressed in all-black for the protest. Whaley and The Plainsman, an Auburn University student newspaper, both mentioned how Auburn students were not the violent protesters. In similar situations at other college campuses, some groups of violent protesters from outside of the university often instigate the issues, which makes national news. CNN—covering the February Berkeley outbreak—wrote, “The university blamed ‘150 masked agitators’ for the unrest, saying they had come to campus to disturb an otherwise peaceful protest.”
After some similar instances turned violent—protests of Yiannopoulos’ speech at Berkeley and author Charles Murray’s at Middlebury—many people expected violence at Auburn. However, unlike the Berkeley event, The Plainsman stressed that, other than one fight, the protests were not violent. The three individuals arrested were not Auburn students. The university police chief told The Plainsman: “I think it means a lot that the arrests weren’t students… It really speaks to how well behaved our students are.” Despite the one fight, the protests against Spencer’s speech remained peaceful.