The alt-right’s attempts to spread its white supremacist philosophy on college campuses have encountered difficulties, as witnessed this past weekend by the transformation of prominent bigot Milo Yiannopoulos’s four-day “Free Speech Week” at the University of California Berkeley into a 20-minute press conference broadcast on Facebook Live.
But one graduate student at a southern university is undaunted in his quest to book alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer of the white nationalist National Policy Institute at college campuses across America, and has turned to the courts to try to force reluctant universities to host Spencer’s hate speech.
Cameron Padgett, age 29, a graduate student at Georgia State University who says he does not identify as alt-right, but as an identitarian, filed an application on Monday, April 10 to rent an auditorium at Auburn University in Alabama for Spencer to speak about the alt-right on Tuesday, April 18.
Two days after Padgett’s application, Auburn issued a statement about Spencer, stating, “[w]e strongly deplore his views, which run counter to those of this institution,” but “Auburn supports the constitutional right to free speech.” On the Friday before the event was scheduled, Auburn issued another statement saying Spencer’s event was canceled after consultation with law enforcement, and that the decision was “based on legitimate concerns and credible evidence that it will jeopardize the safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors.”
Auburn’s reaction to Spencer’s booking reflected another cancelled event by Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley on February 1, where violent protests caused the university to block Yiannopoulos’s speech two hours before it was scheduled. Six people were injured, according to CNN, and UC Berkeley’s campus suffered $100,000 in damages by the protesters.
Spencer was enraged, telling Auburn’s student newspaper, The Plainsman, “I will give a speech on their campus. It is a public place … Auburn is going to rue the day that they made this bullshit decision. I will not back down. I will be there. This is going to be so much bigger than they imagined.”
Padgett, the Georgia State student who’d booked Spencer’s appearance for a $700 fee, took a different tack: He lawyered up and sued Auburn, enlisting former Ku Klux Klan attorney and longtime outspoken racist Sam Dickson to litigate in U.S. District Court.
“Various minority advocacy groups of Jews, Blacks and immigrants and left-wing/liberal groups demanded that no forum be afforded for the expression of views that contradict their own and which they find unhelpful for their identity group agendas and political agendas,” Dickson wrote on behalf of Padgett in the complaint against Auburn for violating Padgett’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
On Tuesday, April 18, the day Spencer was originally scheduled to speak at Auburn, District Judge W. Keith Watkins granted Padgett an emergency temporary injunction forcing Auburn to allow Spencer’s event that day, writing, “Auburn did not produce evidence that Mr. Spencer’s speech is likely to incite or produce imminent lawless action.” The judge continued, “The court finds that Auburn University cancelled the speech based on its belief that listeners and protest groups opposed to Mr. Spencer’s ideology would react to the content of his speech by engaging in protests that could cause violence or property damage.” As a public institution, the judge ruled, Auburn must uphold the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees on its campus.
Padgett was awarded a $29,000 settlement from Auburn, which he told Talking Points Memo he used to pay his attorney, Dickson, and to reimburse the National Policy Institute for campus expenses, donating the remainder to a “pro free speech organization” he has to date declined to identify.
Judge Watkins also emphasized another element mentioned in Padgett’s complaint — that law enforcement ensure compliance with Alabama’s anti-mask law, which criminalizes wearing a mask while congregating in a public space. “The enforcement of the anti-mask law of the State of Alabama on Anti-Fa who show up on the grounds of Auburn University is part of the duty owed by the school’s police authorities to Plaintiff and those attending the meeting,” Dickson and Padgett had asserted.
The Plainsman reported around 300 people showed up for Spencer’s speech, half “largely middle-aged white men who didn’t appear to be students,” and the other half “largely students” who “heckled and booed.” Protests were “largely peaceful,” the student newspaper said, though a fight broke out and three people were arrested outside the venue. When a group of Spencer’s supporters left the event, students and protesters chased them off campus and through downtown Auburn.
“I am a huge supporter of the First Amendment and believe anyone should be able to express their ideas on college campuses, including Richard Spencer,” Padgett told Hatewatch in an email interview. “I will never apologize for willingly, in my own capacity [Padgett does not work for Spencer, or the National Policy Institute, he says] making a push for him to be able to speak on campuses.”
Padgett’s courtroom victory was no surprise, says Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which maintains a Disinvitation Database of individuals from the right and the left who’ve had invitations to speak at college campuses rescinded. Referencing Auburn’s consultation with law enforcement prior to the cancellation of Spencer’s event, Steinbaugh said, “Government has historically used vague references to the possibility of violence in order to suppress speech; we should always be skeptical of that, so long as it does not compromise the ability of the police to protect against violence.”
Spurred on by the success at Auburn, Padgett continued to reserve spaces for Spencer to hold events at other public universities (though notably not at his home campus, Georgia State). He attempted to book Spencer at Michigan State University, the University of Florida, Louisiana State University, Ohio State University, Penn State and the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill.
The colleges were universally hesitant to host Spencer. Then, on August 12, came the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, with Spencer a scheduled speaker. The night before the rally, 14 people were injured in clashes between counter-protesters and torch-wielding racists chanting “Jews will not replace us.” After Governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency the morning of the event and police subsequently declared the assembly unlawful, 20-year-old James Alex Fields, Jr., a Nazi sympathizer, allegedly plowed his car into a crowd, injuring 19 people and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a local paralegal protesting the white nationalists.
“It was a huge moral victory in terms of the show of force,” Spencer told the New York Times.
In the wake of the violence, web hosting service Squarespace removed the National Policy Institute’s website from its platform (the site is still offline). And universities began cancelling the events Padgett had booked for Spencer.
Michigan State, the University of Florida, Louisiana State, Penn State, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Ohio State all declined to host events by Spencer that Padgett had attempted to book (another event featuring Spencer which was cancelled, a “White Lives Matter” rally at Texas A&M, was not booked by Padgett).
Padgett lawyered up again against Michigan State, hiring racist firebrand Kyle Bristow, founder of white nationalist think-tank the Foundation for the Marketplace of Ideas, to represent him in a lawsuit against the school virtually identical to the Auburn litigation.
(Padgett and another attorney, Gary Edinger, threatened the University of Florida with a lawsuit; UF agreed that banning Spencer from speaking would be unconstitutional, and has tentatively rescheduled Spencer’s September 12 event to October 19. On September 25, Bristow tweeted, “On behalf of Cameron Padgett, I just sent a letter to Ohio State University’s General Counsel. @RichardBSpencer will speak at OSU.”)
Like Auburn, Michigan State had invoked “consultation with law enforcement officials” in its denial of Padgett’s request to rent space for Spencer. After the lawsuit was filed, a university spokesperson wrote, “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 community.”
The complaint filed against Michigan State by Bristow calls Padgett, the plaintiff, a “23-year-old senior at Georgia State University who subscribes to identitarian philosophy… a Eurocentric political ideology which advocates the preservation of national identity and a return to traditional Western values,” and notes, “Although Plaintiff does not consider himself Alt-Right, Plaintiff is a supporter of Spencer and Plaintiff is the organizer of Spencer’s collegiate speaking tour.”
Padgett is 29 years old, not 23, which he verified to the SPLC.
District Court Judge Janet T. Neff did not grant an injunction to allow Spencer to speak on September 15, the date Padgett had booked for Spencer at Michigan State.
In Michigan State’s response to Padgett’s complaint, the school asserted Padgett lacks standing to assert Spencer’s free speech rights, and Spencer should be the one to file any such complaint. It also states “MSU did not act out of a desire to suppress Mr. Spencer’s views,” and that “MSU’s decision was made solely to protect its students and other members of its community at a unique time immediately following the tragic violence in Charlottesville.”
Judge Neff scheduled a pre-motion conference for November 3 to hear further arguments in the case. But Steinbaugh, from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, believes Padgett will prevail in his lawsuit. Steinbaugh cited the “heckler’s veto” argument used against both Auburn and Michigan State by Padgett’s attorneys (which is enshrined in case law): “the government referencing the unpopular nature of the speech and possibility of violence in order to quash free speech.” Steinbaugh said, “Courts will essentially say, ‘what could police have done to prevent a violent reaction to speech instead of denying the speaker his First Amendment rights?’”
Padgett declined to comment on the Michigan State lawsuit, saying, “I would rather it be decided in the court of law, where it should be, instead of the court of public opinion.”
Padgett used nearly identical language to the Michigan State lawsuit to describe his definition of identitarian in an interview withHatewatch. “Identitarian means someone who agrees with preserving national identity and a return to western values. I would also consider myself a Nationalist. The term alt-right is too loosely defined,” he said. “I am not a ‘white supremacist’ and have never hated anyone in my life to be completely honest.” He previously told the Atlanta NPR affiliate he defined identitarianism as “’not degeneracy’ basically … Violence, sex before marriage, that kind of stuff, pornography — that has not been good for society at all.”
But despite Padgett’s attempt to draw lines between the alt-right and identitarianism, Spencer’s National Policy Institute held a “Why I’m An Identitarian” essay contest in 2015. A report by the SPLC that year noted, “Put simply, identitarians want regions and nations that are different from one another — but at the same time culturally and ethnically homogenous within their borders.”
Noting that during his high school sports career in Savannah, Georgia, he “played basketball with many African Americans who I am still friends with today,” Padgett continued, “I believe there is a lot of unnecessary anti-white rhetoric coming from many different fronts and it should not be surprising that there is a natural reaction to that.”
Still, Padgett’s Twitter account (where he can’t exactly be called an influencer, with just under 850 followers) flirts with racism and anti-Semitism, with a penchant for retweeting Spencer and other far-right ideologues like Ann Coulter. “Whites are told race is a social construct while every other race is socially allowed to identify among themselves, except whites,” he tweeted on September 23.
On August 22, Padget tweeted, “Remember: There is no such thing as white ‘racism.’”
On September 15, after former Breitbart staffer Ben Shapiro spoke at UC Berkeley, Padgett tweeted, “A college will spend 600k to protect a Jewish speaker in @benshapiro but won’t spend a dime to protect @RichardBSpencer. Clearly anti-white.”
“I do believe that our relationship with Israel plays a negative role in our foreign policy,” Padgett said in an interview. “Should that make me anti-semitic? I would say no. I disagree with Israeli-occupation in Palestine also.”
Despite his associations with well-known racists and white nationalists like Spencer and his attorneys Dickson and Bristow, Padgett splits hairs over terminology. He objected to the term “white supremacist” being used to describe his two lawyers, saying:
the word supremacist would mean you want to control or ‘reign supreme’ over other people. I have never met or associated myself with anyone who wants to do that so I think that word is very unfair to use. Its [sic] just not accurate at all.
Padgett emphasized his opposition to “mass immigration into our country,” saying “I believe that is a threat to Western Culture and I think it would be unfair to call me hateful for saying that.” Speaking of Spencer, he said, “I do not agree with every thing [sic] he says but on the other hand there are some things I do agree with. I would advocate a net-neutral immigration policy like he has stated. (One thing I agree with him on.)”
Padgett went on to say, “I would not however advocate for an entire white ethnostate,” a policy Spencer is infamous for promoting. But Padgett’s insistence he is ideologically an identitarian, a philosophy Spencer has nurtured and encouraged, would seem to run contrary to that statement. As Spencer, Padgett and their legal counsel continue their mission to bring Spencer’s racism and xenophobia to campuses across the nation, Padgett’s quest to separate himself from the ideology of his hate-filled allies will continue to be under the microscope.
Photo credit: AP Images/David Goldman