Tumultuous May of 1970 provides insight to free speech on MSU campus
Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and member of the "alt-right," was denied the right to speak by MSU because of public safety concerns, drawing praise from some but disdain from others. Who has the ability to assemble at a public university, and why are they allowed to assemble is a question still being asked by university administrators and political activists alike.
Looking back to May 1970 could provide insight on the current political environment on campus.
“Private colleges and institutions can pretty much do what they please, they can restrict students in a number of ways, prevent people from carrying on campus that they dislike. They are removed from the Bill of Rights in many ways,” professor William Hixson said.
Hixson was a professor from 1966 to 1993 at MSU in the Department of History.
“Public institutions, on the other hand, this is a trend of cases starting in the 1950s and then accelerating into the 1960s, are bound by the First and Fourteenth amendments," Hixson said. "Which means they cannot deny students freedom of speech. This came up in a number of cases in the south, where black students were protesting segregation and were expelled. There expulsions were overturned by federal courts.”
By the mid-1960s, students could say what they wanted on college campuses. The issue evolved into the question of whether students had the right to bring outside speakers onto campus.
“What you had on a number of campuses as a result of that was kind of a freak show. You had leaders of the American Nazi Party and so forth being invited to speak because the students thought it’d be exciting,” Hixson said. “After the free speech movement sort of peaked, we had the escalation of the war in Vietnam. We had, on every campus, recruiters for the armed forces and recruiters for companies allied with war production, in our case DOW chemical.”
The Dow Chemical Company was one of multiple companies that produced napalm B for the U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War. DOW Chemical’s world headquarters is in Midland, Mich.
“A number of student groups began protesting, picketing, trying to make it hard for them to speak. Mostly the local chapter of Students for Democratic Society, but other groups as well,” Hixson said. “That raised a new dimension to free speech on campus, did free speech apply to the government?”
Hixson mentioned that MSU’s campus moved a little bit behind some of the more noteworthy campuses.
"It was pretty quiet when I came in 1966,” Hixson said. “1968 it began accelerating, but in 1970 it was extraordinary. It was as if much of the campus had decided to relive the '60s in a couple of days.”
The Kent State shooting on May 4, 1970, sent another wave of protests to MSU's campus. According to a previous article from The State News, “Jeffrey Glenn Miller, 20, of Plainview, New York, who attended MSU from 1967 until his transfer to Kent State in 1969, was one of four students killed during the fourth day of protests at the northeast Ohio college campus. The protests followed President Nixon's announcement of U.S. troop involvement in Cambodia.”
The Kent State shooting was all that was needed to send MSU’s campus into a complete tailspin, with thousands of students protesting across campus for the three weeks that followed.
“Meanwhile, for completely independent reasons, you had a group of students, a lack of a better word you would call hippies, who decided to stage People's Park, which was the hippie sanctuary at Berkeley in '69 where Reagan sent in helicopters, in the back of Wells Hall, and they were living a People's Park lifestyle,” Hixson said.
According to The State News May 4, 1970 edition, student protesters had occupied the space between Wells and Erickson halls since the April 25, 1970.
“They would wander around in various degrees of dressing and undressing, and this of course was the same time the tulips were blooming,” Hixson said. "You had all these good souls from rural Michigan coming in to look at the Tulips having to confront these guys with long beards and not many clothes on.”
Campus was divided, with multiple anti-protest student groups sprouting from the Anti-ROTC and Kent State protests.
“If you went from Grand River to the Red Cedar River, you had the sense the entire university was shut down. If you went south of the Red Cedar, business as usual,” Hixson said. “There was an obvious split between students in humanities, social sciences, the residential colleges, and the students in agriculture and engineering and so forth.”
The anti-Vietnam protests culminated on May 15, 1970, with 8,000 protesters marching around MSU’s campus. They continued to walk down Michigan Avenue to the Capitol.
According to a previous article from The State News, “The marchers, who came from colleges and universities across the state, urged passage of the House bill exempting Michigan residents from serving in an undeclared war and immediate withdrawal of troops from Indochina. They had walked in the rainy, 50-degree weather down Michigan Avenue from a rally at Beaumont Tower. A motorist injured 10 young people when he swerved his red Falcon into a crowd of marchers near the intersection of Michigan and LaSalle Boulevard.”
Reflecting the past, MSU students have protested guest speakers conservative columnist George Will in 2014, far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos in 2016 and Donald Trump Jr. in 2016. News of Spencer's attempt to visit in 2017 also sparked controversy.
Spencer played a major role with the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 and was denied the right to speak on MSU’s campus. The university cited public safety as the main reason why Spencer was denied.
“The position of the MSU College Democrats is the university has a responsibility to protect the well being of its students. That means emotional well being, but were talking also primarily about physical safety,” political science senior Eli Pales said. Pales is the press secretary of the MSU College Democrats. “What we saw after Charlottesville is a demonstration of white supremacists, which led to a large arms movement, even one person being killed. So the position of the MSU College Democrats lines up with the position the university is taking, which is Richard Spencer's arrival on MSU’s campus would be a danger to the safety of MSU students.”
Allowing someone with views like Spencer's to speak in a public space becomes complicated in the realm of free speech and the First Amendment.
“It’s not anybody’s place to tell somebody where they can and cannot speak. If the university does not allow it, they have good reasoning behind it,” political science junior Chrissy Clark said. Clark is the president of the MSU chapter of Turning Point USA.
Clark does not endorse or believe Spencer’s "alt-right" ideology.
“If there’s a conservative speaker or a liberal speaker and they don’t conform to specific, moderate policy, the university thinks that it’s non-partisan," Clark said.
Clark has similar views on Milo Yiannopoulos, a British conservative speaker, former editor at Breitbart News and a self-proclaimed member of the "alt-right." Yiannopoulos spoke at MSU in December 2016 at Conrad Hall after an invite from MSU’s chapter of Young Americans for Liberty. The Young Americans for Liberty did not respond to a request for an interview.
“Do I agree with what Milo says? Absolutely not, I don’t even like him or agree with him most of the time. Free speech does not have to be a partisan issue. When there are ridiculous protests on free speech because you don’t like him, just don’t go,” Clark said. “Why I advocate for free speech on college campuses so much is because college is about learning. I go and listen to the liberal side, and it's interesting and that is what college is about.”
Pales expressed similar views to Clark when it came to Yiannopoulos speaking on campus.
“I personally went to go see Milo when he was here, I have a personal belief that free speech rights are important even those that we disagree with,” Pales said. “I’m afraid if you censor speech, it festers underground.”
Following the Milo event, five protesters were arrested and were at risk for being charged with felonies. Those charges were later dropped.
“We believe that students have the responsibility to protest and show their First Amendment rights. There is an attack by Republicans right now on protest movements,” Pales said. “There is a bill that was introduced in the state house here in Michigan, and they proposed that if you interrupt a university student more than once, the university would be required to suspend you for at least a year."
Pales said he see the suspension as a prime attack on freedom of speech and the right to protest.
“If we are going to affirm colleges and universities as forums of public opinion, we have to deal with the emotional aspect that these people feel threatened by these speakers. I think this is what makes this problem so difficult,” Hixson said. “Eventually some court will decide if universities have the right to deny some speakers from speaking on campus. My hunch is that is an issue that’s out there that will still be resolved by the courts.”