How Far Does First Amendment Free Speech Protection Go?

In cancelling a rally by white nationalist, Richard Spencer, Texas A&M cited concerns for public safety, after organizer Patrick Wiginton linked the event, planned for September 11, to violence in Charlottesville, Virginia that left one dead and dozens injured. Spencer is threatening to sue on First Amendment grounds.

By Andrew SchneiderAugust 16, 2017 9:30 am, , , ,

This story from Houston Public Media describes a threatened lawsuit over cancelation of a planned white nationalist rally. Texas Standard spoke to  Dale Carpenter, chair of constitutional law at the SMU Dedman School of Law, about what kinds of controversial speech are protected by the First Amendment.

Texas A&M University may face a lawsuit over its decision to cancel a rally planned for September 11, featuring white supremacist leader Richard Spencer. The university canceled the event two days after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which also featured Spencer, left one dead and dozens injured.

At issue is whether the university violated the planners’ First Amendment rights. Patrick Wiginton, organizer of the rally, told News 88.7 that one of his colleagues in “White Lives Matter” has filed a complaint with the ACLU in Houston.

“When Black Lives Matter was at Texas A&M last November, Texas A&M rolled out the red carpet for them,” Wiginton said. “But when White Lives Matter wants to come to A&M, the student body wants to form a human wall to prevent us from stepping foot on campus, the administration condemns us, and the Texas State Legislature puts pressure on the administration to cancel the event.”

Charles “Rocky” Rhodes teaches constitutional law at south Texas College of Law Houston. Rhodes told Houston Matters that courts recognize limits on freedom of speech, such as when speech is intended to incite violence.

“Texas A&M is assisted here by some of the organizer’s own statements,” says Rhodes. “He went to social media to promote his event right after what happened in Charlottesville, and says, ‘Today Charlottesville. Tomorrow Texas A&M.’”

In canceling the September rally, A&M officials disputed that they were seeking to deny anyone’s freedom of speech. They noted the university had allowed Wiginton to organize a similar rally featuring Spencer on campus last December. However, they said, “Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus.”

Professor Carpenter told the Standard that the range of speech protected by the First Amendment is broad, including views that many people would label “hate speech.”

Carter says Texas A&M can argue that the cancelation of the white nationalist rally would impede campus activities.

“What I think Texas A&M might be able to say is… ‘we’re concerned about disruption of campus activities – blocking traffic, pedestrian flow and things like that. And those have nothing to do with disagreement with white supremacists,” he says.

Carpenter says even statements by rally organizers that seem to imply violent intent may not be sufficient to allow Texas A&M to prevail in a lawsuit.

“A court would be reluctant to say that something that could be read either way could be interpreted as an actual threat of violence,” he says.

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White supremacist leader Richard Spencer