For universities, the new academic year has nearly arrived. If it’s anything like last year, controversial speakers will be a consistent challenge for administrators and students alike.
More often than not, the speakers that generate the most controversy are those labeled right-wing reactionaries by their critics. Last fall, Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, launched a speaking tour to recruit college students to the alt-right, a loose group of white supremacists and online agitators. His speech at Texas A&M University at College Station saw protest become physical, a turn that would become common throughout the coming months.
During a visit to the University of California at Berkeley in February, the far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was greeted by masked protesters who smashed windows and set fires on the campus. Weeks earlier, a man was shot during a protest of a speech by Mr. Yiannopoulos at the University of Washington.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that monitors hate groups, wants to reduce the number of these protests gone awry. To that end, the center, which also monitored cases of anti-immigrant and race-based harassment after the presidential election, has issued a 20-page report with advice for students on how best to respond when a controversial speaker from the alt-right comes to campus. The guide, titled "The Alt-Right on Campus: What Students Need to Know," is geared toward student activists, but it also has relevance to administrators and faculty members on dealing with contentious speakers. Here are a few highlights:
Just ignore the event.
The spectacles created by counterprotesters, says Lecia Brooks, the SPLC’s outreach director, only serve to embolden the speakers and allow them to portray themselves as victims.
"The best response is not to show up at all," Ms. Brooks said. "It is the better strategy."
That’s the same advice Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, gave to the UVa community regarding a gathering of white-nationalists in Charlottesville, planned for this Saturday.
"To approach the rally and confront the activists would only satisfy their craving for spectacle," she wrote. "They believe that your counterprotest helps their cause."
A similar approach was adopted at Texas A&M when Mr. Spencer came to its campus in December. University leaders organized a competing event, "Aggies United," away from Mr. Spencer’s speech, though police officers in riot gear still had to stop some protesters from trying to enter the building where he was speaking.
Ask college leaders to denounce the speaker.
While it might be tempting for administrators to try and cancel the event, that could lead to even more attention for the speaker, Ms. Brooks said. That’s what happened at Auburn University when Mr. Spencer visited its campus in April. The university had tried to prevent him from speaking, but a judge ruled against that decision. Ms. Brooks said the event attracted more attention as a result.
Or consider Berkeley’s juggling of Ann Coulter’s ultimately canceled speech. That caused plenty headaches, even though she never spoke at the campus.
Instead, the SPLC report suggests that student activists ask the administration to denounce the speaker’s message. Michael K. Young, the Texas A&M president, called Mr. Spencer’s racist message "beneath contempt" when the white nationalist visited that campus.
Talk to the group hosting the event.
It’s easy to forget that these speakers don’t materialize out of thin air, but rather are invited — often by other students, who can have mixed motives. The views of students who invite a controversial speaker may not correspond with those of the speaker.
That was the case when Mr. Yiannopoulos visited the University of Washington. A leader of the College Republicans chapter that had invited him told The Chronicle that student organizers had wanted a tamer conservative speaker, Ben Shapiro, to speak at the college, but they couldn’t afford his $10,000 fee. Mr. Yiannopoulos came free of charge.
And the dean of students at Wake Forest University was able to convince the College Republicans there to bring in Roger Stone instead of Mr. Yiannopoulos. The group’s goal had really been to get more conservative viewpoints on campus, not necessarily to endorse Mr. Yiannopoulos.
The Southern Poverty Law Center encourages people to try and suss out the host group’s motivation for bringing a controversial speaker to campus. For more of its insights, including a who’s who in the alt-right and other tips on how to quell the storm a controversial speaker brings, check out the full report.