DETROIT — It's not us — it's them.
That's the argument being used in a federal lawsuit filed Sunday by a white supremacist group asking a judge to force Michigan State University into giving them space on campus to speak.
Last month, MSU said no to the National Policy Institute, run by Richard Spencer, citing safety concerns if the group showed up on campus.
"After consultation with law enforcement officials, Michigan State University has decided to deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent space on campus to accommodate a speaker," the university said in a statement at the time. "This decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville ...."
But there's no threat from the NPI, the lawsuit claims, instead pinning the blame for well-publicized violence around their appearances.
"Radical leftists affiliated with the Antifa political movement have previously violently attacked Spencer and Spencer's supports at venues which Spencer and Spencer's supporters peacefully assembled ..." the lawsuit, filed by Michigan attorney Kyle Bristow on behalf of Cameron Padgett, the organizer of Spencer's speeches says. "Usually clothed in black and wearing masks to cowardly conceal their identities, Antifa activists routinely show up to politically right-of-center events with baseball bats, knives, sticks, pepper spray and other weapons to attack their political opponents. Antifa activists often throw water balloons filled with urine and other harmful objects at politically right-of-center people without lawful justification."
Bristow is a graduate of MSU, where he was the president of the Young Americans for Freedom chapter. During his time there, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed his chapter of YAF as a hate group. Grant Strobl, the current national chairman of YAF and a University of Michigan student said Bristow's YAF chapter wasn't authorized.
"Bristow’s group at Michigan State University was never a chartered Young Americans for Freedom chapter, and used our name without authorization," Strobl said in an email to the Detroit Free Press. "Bristow apparently never believed YAF's policies which included treating all individuals equally without reference to racial preferences. YAF prohibits racists and always has done so.
"YAF is the organization founded by Bill Buckley and guided by Ronald Reagan. We’ve never been an institution that welcomed or had room for a George Lincoln Rockwell, George Wallace, or Richard Spencer."
The lawsuit goes on to claim that MSU decision "constitutes unconstitutional discrimination in the form of a heckler's veto" because MSU doesn't support the group's views, which it outlines in the lawsuit.
"Alt-Right ... is a Eurocentric political ideology which advocates the preservation of national identity, a return to tradition Western values, and advances European racial interests. Race-based preferential treatment for non-Europeans (a/k/a affirmative action), non-European immigration to European countries and their former colonies, international free trade agreements, radical feminism, sexual deviancy and the ideology of multiculturalism are strongly criticized by adherents of Alt-Right philosophy."
It's an argument the group has successful used before to force universities to let it on campus.
In April, Auburn University canceled a contract it had with Spencer, allowing him to rent space on campus. Spencer sued in federal court and Judge W. Keith Watkins ruled he had to be allowed on campus.
"While Mr. Spencer's beliefs and message are controversial, Auburn presented no evidence that Mr. Spencer advocated violence," Watkins wrote in his ruling. "The court finds that Auburn University cancelled the speech based on its belief that listeners and protest groups opposed to Mr. Spencer's ideology would react to the content of his speech by engaging in protests that could cause violence or property damage. However, discrimination on the basis of message content 'cannot be tolerated under the First Amendment' and 'listeners reaction to speech is not a content-neutral basis for regulation.'"
Auburn ended up paying Spencer $29,000 to settle the lawsuit.
MSU said it isn't changing its stance.
"We are aware of the lawsuit," MSU spokesman Kent Cassella told the Free Press. "Michigan State University decided to deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent space on campus to accommodate a speaker after consultation with law enforcement officials. The decision was made due to significant concerns about public safety in the wake of the tragic violence in Charlottesville. While we remain firm in our commitment to freedom of expression, our first obligation is to the safety and security of our students and our community."
In the suit against Michigan State, the group is asking for the judge to force MSU to let Spencer speak and to give them more than $75,000 in damages.
Robert Sedler, a constitutional law professor at Wayne State University, said last month courts have established that the overriding principle for public universities when it comes to speech on campus is neutrality toward the content.
"Once it allows access it cannot discriminate on the basis of content," he said, meaning that the university can't prohibit racist speech and allow equality speech.
Even if a public university fears that the speech will incite violence, Sedler said, it must allow it if there's advance notice. The university must protect the speaker and can use law enforcement to prevent violence, he added.
Contributing: The Lansing State Journal. Follow David Jesse on Twitter: @reporterdavidj