Leadership & Governance

Charlottesville Violence Sparks New Worries About Safety During Campus Protests

August 15, 2017

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
A rally led by white nationalist groups in Charlottesville, Va., resulted in violence that left one person dead and more than a dozen people injured.

The torch-bearing white nationalists who walked across the University of Virginia’s Lawn illuminated this much: How unprepared such institutions are to deal with the threat of sudden political violence.

In the wake of an ensuing melee on Virginia’s campus on Friday night, as well as the following day’s violent clashes between white nationalists and counter-protesters in downtown Charlottesville, Va., experts on campus security say colleges need to rethink how they can keep public demonstrations and appearances by controversial figures from leading to tragedy.

“People are coming to these protests heavily armed, and mixing into crowds with armed and unarmed people. That puts a much different dynamic in it for law enforcement.”

How uneasy colleges have been left by the Charlottesville violence became clear Monday. Texas A&M University announced late in the day that it had canceled an outsider’s plans to hold a "White Lives Matter" event featuring the white-supremacist leader Richard Spencer at the College Station campus on September 11.

A written statement from the university said it canceled the event "after consultation with law enforcement and considerable study," based on "concerns about the safety of its students, faculty, staff, and the public."

Elsewhere, the University of Florida said Monday that it had not yet made a decision on a request by the National Policy Institute, the far-right organization that Mr. Spencer leads, to rent space on its campus so he could speak there on September 12.

"We are assessing security needs, particularly in light of events over the weekend," Janine Sikes, a university spokeswoman, said in an interview. "The bottom line is that the event for Richard Spencer remains tentative at this point. No contract has been signed and no fees have been paid."

Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said her organization plans new training sessions for its members in response to the mayhem in Charlottesville. The training sessions, she says, will "talk directly about when protests go violent."

Colleges "should be planning now to deal with those things that cannot be anticipated," and "these conversations need to happen now, and not in the heat of the moment," she says.

"Now we are really on notice," says Constance Neary, a vice president at United Educators, a risk-management and insurance firm that serves colleges. "We need to recalibrate our thinking and planning in terms of groups coming onto campuses."

A New Dynamic

The nation’s colleges were rocked by similarly serious political violence in the ’60s and early ’70s. As it became a distant memory, however, deterring such unrest generally seemed like a matter of making small adjustments, such as asking a few extra police officers to monitor the crowds at speeches or rallies.

Recent eruptions of chaos, such as the violent protests that last winter greeted the appearance of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley, had at least served as a wake-up call that campus tensions could erupt into property destruction. Charlottesville, however, has introduced the specter of protesters showing up with helmets, shields, and various weapons, ready to take swings at people rather than windows.

"People are coming to these protests heavily armed, and mixing into crowds with armed and unarmed people. That puts a much different dynamic in it for law enforcement," says Ms. Riseling, of the campus law-enforcement administrators group, known as Iaclea. "Just because someone is armed does not mean they are not going to be peaceful," she says, "but it certainly is a complicator."

Neal H. Hutchens, a professor of higher education at the University of Mississippi and lawyer who is working on a book on the First Amendment and higher education, thinks the circumstances of the deadly violence in Charlottesville could change the ways courts and campus leaders think about free-speech and safety issues.

"Usually under the First Amendment it’s really hard to ban something," he said. But now, it seems white-supremacist groups are specifically targeting universities and acting as if they’re "really more interested in causing destruction," he said. That means "we’re getting into some new waters."

Mr. Hutchens said he could imagine university leaders and courts looking at situations where there are "credible threats of a UVa scenario that so overwhelm the purpose of a university" and use that to justify tighter restrictions.

In the wake of this weekend's violence, "you may see courts sympathetic to institutions being able to rein this in," he said.

It could also embolden presidents to decide, "I’ll make a court make me do something before I let these people on my campus," he added.

But Ari Cohn, director of the individual-rights defense program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, argues that the past weekend’s violence should not in any way be interpreted by colleges as justifying restrictions on free speech.

"We don’t discard the First Amendment just because at a rally somewhere something bad happened," Mr. Cohn says. "The price you pay for the freedoms that we have is the risk that something might go wrong."

'We Must Follow the Law'

Julia Robinson for The Chronicle
The white-supremacist leader Richard Spencer spoke at Texas A&M U. at College Station last year, but the university, citing safety concerns, is denying an organizer permission to stage a similar event this month.

In a statement on Saturday announcing that Mr. Spencer's group was seeking to rent space at the University of Florida, W. Kent Fuchs, the university’s president, suggested that his institution might have no choice but to grant the request, so long as the group covered the associated expenses and security costs. He called Mr. Spencer’s potential appearance there "deeply disturbing" and contrary to the university’s values, but said "we must follow the law, upholding the First Amendment not to discriminate based on content."

Mr. Fuchs urged the campus community not to engage with Mr. Spencer’s organization and "give more media attention for their message of intolerance and hate." Soon after he issued his statement revealing that the group had sought to rent space there, however, a Facebook page titled "No Nazis at UF" sprang up to summon people to the campus for counter-protests.

Ms. Neary, of United Educators, said colleges need to plan for unrest by deciding how they would react to scenarios based on last weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, last February’s unrest in Berkeley, and other incidents of campus violence.

Ms. Riseling, of Iaclea, says the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre prompted colleges to plan out how they would summon emergency personnel and protect people on campus in response to a threat such an active shooter. But, she said, colleges’ ability to restrict people from bringing weapons to protests and other events has been eroded by the campus-carry laws passed in several states. In some cases, such laws have prompted colleges to allow not just firearms, but lesser weapons, such as clubs and pepper spray, that people might be more tempted to use in a political skirmish.

Ann H. Franke, president of Wise Results LLC, a firm that advises colleges on higher-education policy and risk issues, says colleges that find themselves unable to provide adequate security for a speaker should "find a way for the speaker to speak remotely — through video remote hookup, something like that — so the ideas can be expressed."

In announcing its decision to deny Preston Wiginton, a former student, permission to hold his "White Lives Matter" event there, Texas A&M noted that no one on the campus had offered to sponsor the event to give Mr. Wiginton access to a campus facility. Mr. Wiginton had rented space at the university for an appearance by Mr. Spencer last year, and the ensuing controversy had prompted the university to adopt a policy requiring all such rental requests to have the sponsorship of a recognized student organization, one of the university’s academic or administrative units, or another campus in the Texas A&M system.

Mr. Wiginton had announced his plans for the event with a news release titled "Today Charlottesville, Tomorrow Texas A&M." Unable to rent space in a campus building, he had planned to hold the event at the university’s Rudder Fountain. The fountain is named after the late James Earl Rudder, a former Texas A&M University system president who earned high military honors in fighting the Nazis in World War II.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.

Goldie Blumenstyk contributed to this article.