Pennsylvania State University is the latest to be hit with a free-speech lawsuit after rejecting a request for prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on campus.
According to the complaint, filed Oct. 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, plaintiff Cameron Padgett, a Georgia man in charge of coordinating Spencer’s campus speaking tour, reached out to the university in July attempting to rent a conference room or lecture hall for a speech by Spencer.
The suit names the Penn State Board of Trustees and university president Eric Barron as defendants.
Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, was one of the promoters of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly in August when marchers clashed with protesters.
On Aug. 22, Barron issued a statement on behalf of the university, calling Spencer’s views “abhorrent and contradictory to our university’s values,” but adding: “After critical assessment by campus police, in consultation with state and federal law enforcement officials, we have determined that Mr. Spencer is not welcome on our campus, as this event at this time presents a major security risk to students, faculty, staff and visitors to campus. It is the likelihood of disruption and violence, not the content, however odious, that drives our decision.”
However, Padgett, in his complaint, alleged the threat of violence was coming solely from the Antifa—short for “antifascist”—movement, directed at Spencer and his supporters.
“Defendants’ decision to prohibit plaintiff from renting a conference room or lecture hall on PSU’s campus due to violence implicitly or explicitly threatened by Antifa and not by the speaker constitutes unconstitutional content discrimination in the form of a heckler’s veto,” Padgett said in the complaint.
Penn State is not the first university to scuttle Padgett’s efforts to book a Spencer speech. Nor is it the first to face a free-speech challenge from Padgett.
Texas A&M University, the University of Florida and Auburn University are among those that rejected requests to host Spencer on their campuses. But a federal judge in Alabama issued a preliminary injunction ordering Auburn to allow Spencer to rent a room on campus for his speech—and to pay for security—and the University of Florida ultimately made its own decision to relent, saying it was legally obligated to let Spencer speak.
In his complaint, Padgett said the current situation at Penn State is “virtually identical” to the situation at Auburn.
“Just like Auburn University, the PSU defendants of the instant civil action must permit plaintiff to rent a conference room or lecture hall for Spencer to speak about alt-right philosophy on PSU’s campus if the First and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution are to be respected,” the complaint said, adding that “this court can and should issue preliminary and permanent injunctions against defendants whereby defendants are ordered to permit plaintiff to rent a conference room or lecture hall on the campus of PSU for a fee to host Spencer as a speaker without plaintiff paying for police protection or posting bond or providing insurance for the event and which requires PSU to maintain law and order via the use of law enforcement officers of its police department so as to protect Spencer’s right to safely speak in a meaningful manner.”
The suit alleges First and 14th amendment free-speech violations and also includes a claim for punitive damages “because defendants caused harm to plaintiff that was malicious, oppressive, and/or in reckless disregard of plaintiff’s rights.”
Padgett’s attorney, Jordan Rushie of Rushie Law in Philadelphia, noting the protests that occurred during Spencer’s speech at the University of Florida on Oct. 19. said Penn State is doing a disservice to its students by denying those who disagree with Spencer the opportunity to express themselves.
“The First Amendment exists to protect speech that people don’t necessarily like, agree with, [or that they] find offensive or even hateful,” Rushie said.
A spokesperson for Penn State said it was the university’s policy not to comment on pending litigation.
Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2373 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ZackNeedlesTLI.