White Nationalists Say Canceled "White Lives Matter" Rally Violates Free Speech

Hours after Texas House lawmakers asked Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp to cancel the planned white nationalist rally coming to his campus Sept. 11, they got a reply: The event was officially off. Rep. John Raney, a College Station Republican, shared Sharp's decision on the House floor, saying the chancellor feared the "White Lives Matter" event would entice Charlottesville-level violence.

"Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus," a Monday evening press release from the university read. Sharp had told Raney he'd seen posts on social media encouraging the event's attendees to bring guns (A&M is an open carry campus), which Sharp said would create a scenario the small local police force "can't handle."

It appears the men behind the slated "White Lives Matter" rally, however, aren't going to move forward without a legal battle. On Monday evening, event creator Preston Wiginton, a College Station man tied to white nationalist groups, told the Texas Tribune, "I guess my lawyers will be suing the state of Texas."

"They think they're above the law," he said.

Wiginton announced plans to hold the rally on Saturday, shortly after a white nationalist drove into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville. By Sunday, Wiginton had confirmed that white nationalist icon Richard Spencer would be speaking at the event.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Spencer argued that the university can't suppress free speech at a rally just because it's afraid it'll get violent.

"You cannot suppress free speech on that basis," he said. "This could get interesting. ... Their argument is very weak."

The Sept. 11 event would have been Spencer's second A&M appearance in the past year. In December, Spencer's on-campus lecture (organized by Wiginton) drew thousands of protesters, and A&M took a beating over its refusal to shut it down. In response, the university promptly changed its policy on external speakers, announcing it will only allow speakers who have on-campus sponsorship by a recognized organization. That's why the slated Sept. 11 event was set to take place on a public outdoor space on campus.

Spencer is also prepared to take A&M to court over the ruling, one which he claims violates his First Amendment rights. It wouldn't be the first time Spencer would use free speech laws to defend his hate speech. In April, Spencer won a case against Auburn University for blocking a campus event he was speaking at. A federal judge said there wasn't enough evidence that Spencer advocates for violence, and that, "discrimination on the basis of message content cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment."

Will A&M be next? Rep. Raney, whose district includes A&M, sounded unsure about the legality of A&M's decision Monday.

"I know there are, I guess you'd say, free speech issues," Raney told the Chronicle. "But this was not done on a free-speech basis. It was done on a safety-of-the-students basis. I think that's appropriate."

In its press release, the university said its support of the First Amendment "cannot be questioned."

"However, in this case...the risks of threat to life and safety compel us to cancel the event," it reads. In an email with the Current, an A&M spokesperson declined to comment on the university's legal defense of the decision. But the university has the strength of the legislature — and the state — behind them. In a Monday press statement, Gov. Abbott said he was working with A&M "to prevent the type of hate-filled event that we saw in Charlottesville."

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