Will white nationalist Richard Spencer speak at Kent State University on May 4?

Legal experts say the school may be able to prevent him from speaking May 4, and if he wants to a use a room there on another day, it appears he will have to get a campus sponsor.

Spencer has threatened to sue Kent State after the school this month denied a request for him to speak there on the 48th anniversary of the day in 1970 when the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of protesters on campus. Four people were killed and nine were wounded.

Kent State said in a Jan. 18 statement released to the media that it could not accommodate the request made by Cameron Padgett, a Georgia student who organizes Spencer’s speaking engagements. The statement said the last two weeks of the semester “are always an exceptionally busy time on our campus, with numerous activities marking the end of our academic year.”

The response emailed to Padgett on Jan. 18 noted the busy campus calendar and said “a student organization or university department must sponsor your event.”

The Beacon Journal received a copy of the email to Padgett on Friday after making a public records request.

The Associated Press reported that Kyle Bristow, a lawyer representing Spencer, notified Kent State administrators Friday that the university has until Feb. 9 to agree to rent space at its Student Multicultural Center at an “acceptable date and time” or face a federal lawsuit.

Jonathan Entin, an emeritus professor of law at Case Western Reserve University, and Bill Rich, a law professor at the University of Akron, noted that Kent State’s denial is what’s known in First Amendment law as “content neutral,” meaning it is not based on the content of the speech.

“If universities were to say we’re not going to let him speak because we abhor the views that he expresses, that would be a clear First Amendment violation,” Rich said.

Ready to sue

Spencer told the KentWired student journalism website after the request was rejected last week that a lawsuit “might very well be” the next step.

Padgett, Spencer’s tour manager, has sued other public universities, including Ohio State, Pennsylvania State and Michigan State, alleging they are violating his free speech rights by refusing to let him rent space for Spencer’s speeches. The universities cited safety concerns.

Entin said that Kent State, in defending against a lawsuit concerning the May 4 date, could cite the sponsorship requirement, as well as saying something akin to “We need to minimize the things taking place on campus that will distract students, distract faculty from end-of-term academic activities.”

That argument, Entin, noted, “would be based on the time and the date, not on the views that Spencer might be expected to articulate on campus.”

Padgett said in his request to rent space at Kent State that “The event must occur on Friday, May 4, for my purposes, because I plan to invite a number of guest speakers — including Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute and Michael Peinovich of [the white nationalist blog] The Right Stuff.”

He said the May 4 shootings would be a “very prominent theme of the discussion.”

Rich, who teaches an upper-level seminar on the First Amendment, said universities can restrict activities that interfere with their educational mission, but it must be done in a “content neutral” fashion.”

A sponsorship requirement, Rich said, must be applied consistently, without regard to the viewpoint of the speaker.

The law professors say citing safety concerns — as other universities have done — may not withstand court scrutiny because such reasons can be viewed as a “heckler’s veto.” This is a legal term for when speech is suppressed because of fear of disruption by the audience.

“The trend in the Supreme Court is to be much more alert to the speaker’s rights and put more of an onus on the government to protect the speaker,” Entin said.

Additionally, he said, “the court has been really skeptical about charging controversial speakers the costs of security.”

Fight over fees

Padgett filed a lawsuit in federal court earlier this month saying University of Cincinnati President Neville Pinto is charging an “unconstitutional security fee” in conjunction with Spencer’s scheduled speech on the campus.

The university is charging a $10,833 security fee. The university last year agreed that Spencer could speak.

UC spokesman Greg Vehr released a statement that said, “The fee assessed is a mere fraction of the costs we anticipate incurring as a result of this event, but we hold firm in our efforts to respect the principles of free speech while maintaining safety on campus.”

In October, Spencer attracted supporters and protestors when he spoke at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Officials at the school have said they spent about $500,000 on security for the event.

Spencer is a leading figure in the alt-right movement. He has used the alt-right term “to describe a loose set of far-right ideals centered on ‘white identity’ and the preservation of ‘Western civilization,’ ’’ according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

At a “Unite the Right” rally in August at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Spencer followers marched while carrying burning torches.

The next day, 32-year-old counter protester Heather Heyer was killed when a car plowed into a crowd and killed her. The driver, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Maumee, Ohio, is charged with murder.

Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or kbyard@thebeaconjournal.com. You can follow her @KatieByardABJ on Twitter or on Facebook at www.facebook.com.