Protests erupt at Auburn University over white nationalist Richard Spencer appearance

Richard Spencer speaks at Auburn University Tuesday night. (Wesley Sinor | wsinor@al.com)

AUBURN, Alabama (CNN) — At least three people were arrested Tuesday night, one was left bloodied at Auburn University amid protests over the appearance of white nationalist Richard Spencer, whose speaking events have sparked an outcry at other schools.

A crowd of several hundred had gathered by early evening at the public university in eastern Alabama, monitored by dozens of police officers with police dogs.

Students told CNN they witnessed a fistfight between a Spencer supporter and a protester that ended with police arresting them.

Inside, hundreds of people packed Foy Hall, many of whom appeared too old to be traditional students, as Spencer delivered on his reputation for inflammatory rhetoric.

There were several attempts to shout him down as he extolled the virtues of being white and and called on whites to fight for their rights. People called him names and yelled at him to get to his point.

Spencer’s supporters occasionally chanted, “Let him speak” when he was interrupted.

Reiterating his key talking points, Spencer denounced diversity as “a way of bringing to an end a nation and a culture” defined by white people.

“There would be no history without us,” he said, prompting shouts from the crowd. “The alt-right is really about putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Free speech or hate speech?

It was an event that almost did not happen.

Spencer, 38, director of the white nationalist think tank National Policy Institute, has been a target for his radical beliefs. He has advocated a “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” where people who are not of European descent voluntarily leave the United States.

After President Donald Trump’s election victory last November, Spencer addressed a gathering of the alt-right movement at which he shouted “Hail Trump!” and audience members apparently gave Nazi salutes. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, he was punched in the face by a masked assailant during an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

He said his Auburn appearance was sponsored by AltRight.com, a white nationalist site. He paid $700 to rent the hall and an additional fee for security from the Auburn Police Department, according to The Plainsman, an Auburn student newspaper.

Citing safety concerns, Auburn canceled the event on Friday. Then, a federal judge granted Spencer’s request for an injunction, effectively ordering Auburn to host his speaking event as originally scheduled.

“While Mr. Spencer’s beliefs and message are controversial, Auburn presented no evidence that Mr. Spencer advocates violence,” U.S. District Court Judge W. Keith Watkins said in his ruling, noting that peaceable free speech is protected by the Constitution.

Concerns about safety on campus

The injunction prompted administrators to call for peace Tuesday amid what it called attempts from uninvited, unaffiliated, off-campus groups to provoke racially divisive, disruptive conflict.

“Auburn University supports the rights and privileges afforded by the First Amendment. However, when the tenets of free speech are overshadowed by threats to the safety of our students, faculty and staff, we have a responsibility to protect our campus,” the Provost’s Office said in a statement.

Last week, the university issued a statement that said in part, “We strongly deplore his views, which run counter to those of this institution. While his event isn’t affiliated with the university, Auburn supports the constitutional right to free speech.”

But two days later, the university said it was canceling Spencer’s visit “based on legitimate concerns and credible evidence that it will jeopardize the safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors.”

The challenges seemed to embolden Spencer. That same day, Spencer tweeted to his 56,000 followers, “We are flying people to Auburn and purchasing safety gear. We really need your help. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t true.”

Debates over free speech on college campuses have flared up in recent months after appearances by such controversial speakers as Charles Murray and Milo Yiannopoulos. A scheduled speech by Yiannopoulos sparked violent protests in February at the University of California-Berkeley.

“They think they have shut this down, but they haven’t,” Spencer told The Plainsman last week. “I will give a speech on their campus. It is a public place. I think Auburn University is naive and has totally misunderstood who I am if they think that I am going to politely back out of this. I will be there 100 percent.”

One Auburn student sought to counter the tension over Spencer’s visit by holding an outdoor concert under the hashtag #AuburnUnites.

“We’re trying to block hate speech with music and positive ideas and unity,” said organizer Jakob Geiger, 19, a sophomore studying political science and English. “We think this is a more effective message to the outside and to our minority students. Our goal is to not be the next Berkeley.”