Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.
Saying they’re concerned about student safety, Texas A&M University leaders announced Monday that they have canceled a planned white nationalist rally on campus.
The school said in a statement that it made the decision after consulting law enforcement and “considerable study.” The event won’t happen because of “concerns about the safety of its students, faculty, staff and the public,” the school said.
The move is sure to prompt questions about its legality, however, because A&M is a public university that can’t block an event because of the views of its organizer.
“Texas A&M’s support of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech cannot be questioned,” the university said in a statement Monday afternoon.
“However, in this case circumstances and information relating to the event have changed and the risks of threat to life and safety compel us to cancel the event.”
Reached by phone while shopping at Walmart on Monday afternoon, rally organizer Preston Wiginton said he had not heard the news. He said he had signed up to protest at a “free speech area” on campus on Sept. 11, but had not heard from anyone at the school since he announced. His response: “I guess my lawyers will now be suing the state of Texas.”
The school cited the violence in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend in guiding its decision. At a Unite the Right rally near the University of Virginia, multiple fights broke out and one woman was killed when a man drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
Wiginton, a local white nationalist, announced his plans for the A&M rally on Saturday amid that violence. The headline for his press release read, “TODAY CHARLOTTESVILLE TOMORROW TEXAS A&M.” A&M officials cited that headline in their decision.
“We were disturbed about the title of Mr. Wiginton’s release,” said Amy Smith, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer at the university.
The decision to cancel the event came in an afternoon meeting involving university President Michael Young, A&M System Chancellor John Sharp, other university leaders and law enforcement officials. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, also consulted with school leaders, his spokesman said.
“When we discussed with law enforcement and others who were at the meeting today, there was no guarantee that we could guarantee safety,” Smith said. “If we could not get that guarantee from our law enforcement, we were not going to put a single student at risk.”
The event was touted by Wiginton as a “White Lives Matter” rally. He said on Saturday that it would feature multiple speakers and a DJ. Infamous “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer confirmed on Sunday that he was planning to attend.
Wiginton, who is in his 50s and briefly attended A&M, hosted Spencer for a speech on campus in December. Thousands of people protested. At times, the night seemed like it might boil over. Police in riot gear had to clear out the student center where Spencer spoke.
After the event, A&M changed its events policy so that anyone who wanted to host an event on campus needed to be sponsored by a student group. A&M officials said Wiginton couldn’t find anyone to sponsor this year’s event, so he filled out a form to hold it on a “free speech” area on a busy plaza. The plaza is named after former A&M president Earl Rudder, who first became famous for his heroism fighting Nazis in World War II.
A&M’s safety reason for canceling the event seems almost certain to be tested in court. First Amendment experts told the Tribune on Monday that if A&M were sued it would probably have to prove in court that it didn’t discriminate based on Wiginton’s views and that it provided ample alternatives for his message to be articulated. Over the weekend, an A&M System regent said he didn’t think the school could cancel the rally.
“If the people coming to do a ‘White Lives Matter’ rally remain in a public area or do so in a manner that doesn’t disrupt the educational function of the institution, the school is going to be highly unlikely to be able to shut it down or restrict it,” said Saunie Schuster, an attorney for The NCHERM Group, which provides consulting for schools on First Amendment issues. She spoke before the cancellation was announced.
Wiginton said A&M can expect legal action soon, saying he knew of a lawyer who would help.
“We have two lawyers in Texas who are alt-right leaning who will get in on the action, too,” he said. “We will probably get the ACLU to file suit as well.”
Patrick Svitek and Morgan Smith contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Texas A&M University is a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.