What’s the Cost? Impacts of ‘Free Speech’ demonstrations on College Campuses

On October 28, 2017, the National Socialist Movement, the League of the South, Vanguard America, and the Traditionalist Worker Party, planned two events entitled “White Lives Matter” in Middle Tennessee, near the campus of Middle Tennessee State University.[1] These groups all participated in the Charlottesville, Virginia “Unite the Right” rally earlier this year, and because of the violence and racist ideology expressed at that event, members of the campus community were justifiably concerned.[2] These planned protests unquestionably impacted MTSU, and this article explores several aspects of the impact these protests had on campus.

Of course, white supremacist action on or near university campuses is not new. Richard Spencer is currently on what he describes as a college tour, with stops at the University of Virginia and the University of Florida, leaving tumult and lawsuits in his wake.[3] The University of Florida spent upwards of $500,000 on security upgrades on campus and in the surrounding areas in preparation for the rally there, and the Florida government declared a state of emergency ahead of the speech.[4] In addition, various white supremacist organizations are recruiting on college campuses.[5] Taken together, these actions leave college campuses in the unfortunate position of determining how to allow for the free expressions of ideologies that conflict with the values of many members of the campus community, while maintaining the safety of all students. It is no surprise that the message that these groups tout is taken by many students as an affront to their very identity.

This “White Lives Matter” protest can serve as something of a case study for the impact of these demonstrations on a college campus. When the rallies were announced, MTSU officials began to plan. The rallies were to be held on a Saturday, the closest one taking place nearly 2 miles from campus – which mitigated their risk to some extent. There is no question that the university was concerned about a possible repeat of the Charlottesville protests which left one dead and nineteen injured. These concerns were heightened when reports began to come in of a “Charlottesville style tiki-torch rally” to be held on Friday the 27th, that thankfully never materialized. The rally was to be held near a building named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who was also an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Students have long advocated changing the name of the building,[6] and have received approval from campus leaders to do so, but the name change has been blocked by the state Historical Commission.[7] One concern was that a demonstration would result in a battle over the name of the building similar to that over the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville.

Students, staff, faculty, and administrators were justifiably concerned. The university’s highest priority was keeping the students safe, but the unconfirmed nature of the information about the protest on campus made it difficult to determine what could be done. The university president sent several emails to the campus community encouraging students to stay away from the site of the main protest, and trying to set standards for conduct and behavior on campus should any protest occur there.[8]

In the end, several events that were scheduled to happen on campus over the weekend were canceled, including a High School Marching Band competition, a science and math conference for young women in middle and high school, and a day-long GRE Preparation course.[9] In addition, the administration closed a parking lot near Forrest Hall on Friday, had the university police and all other first responders on duty over the weekend, and received help from other area college police offices: Austin Peay University, Tennessee Tech, and Tennessee State University.

Student affairs administrators spent days leading up to the rally addressing student and parent concerns, which were being expressed en masse on several private Facebook pages for the students and parents at MTSU. The parent concerns mostly dealt with how MTSU planned to keep their children safe, openly questioning whether their child needed to report for work or attend their classes given the possibility of campus protests.

Classes scheduled for Friday and Saturday were another issue. The University provost sent out an email on Thursday suggesting that because the university could not be sure whether protesters would be on campus, the university would remain open – though instructors had the discretion to make “alternative arrangements for their classes.” In practice, many students, or their parents, were scared and so many students did not come to class, even if the class was held. Many students left campus early to avoid the chaos.

However, the classroom offered an important opportunity to engage directly with the issues brought up by the unwelcome arrival of the protesters. The student concern was palpable. Many faculty members were unsure of how to properly discuss these issues in class with the students, and so conversations filled the halls of the faculty offices regarding best practices for processing these issues in a classroom setting.[10]

In the end, the rally in Murfreesboro ended up being canceled by the organizers late in the day on Saturday. They cited the “intel” suggesting that the event was a “lawsuit trap,” and so chose not to come to Murfreesboro.[11] The Murfreesboro community was galvanized around this issue, with several counter-protests springing up around town. In addition to the approximately 1,000 counter-protesters who made their way to the city square (the site of the protest), another 1,000 or so met in other places across the city, united by their message that Murfreesboro does not accept white supremacy.[12]

Ultimately, the cancellation of the rally doesn’t mean the end of its campus impact. The demonstrations that did take place just 30 miles down the road in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and the events that did transpire in the Murfreesboro square are jarring, and their effect will not disappear anytime soon. The full ideological impact of these events remains to be seen, and so discussions of these events will need to continue on campus – both inside and outside of the classroom.

By Ryan Korstange
Assistant Professor of University Studies at Middle Tennessee State University.

[1] For more information on the rallies, see Kilgore, E. (2017, October 27). Tennessee Braces for White-Supremacist Rallies on Saturday. Daily Intelligencer.

[2] Katz, A. Unrest in Virginia: Clashes over a Show of White Nationalism in Charlottesville Turn Deadly. Time.

[3] Glum, J. (2017, August 14). What is Richard Spencer Doing Next? ‘White Lives Matter’ rally planned in Texas, Speech Requested in Florida. Newsweek.

[4] McGaughy, L. (2017, October 18). As Richard Spencer’s white nationalist tour continues, colleges try to balance security, free speech. Dallas News.

[5] Owen, T. (2017, September 22). Hate on Campus: White supremacists are targeting college campuses for recruitment. Vice News.

[6] Detailed coverage of the effort to change the name of Forrest Hall has been provided by Sidelines, the MTSU student newspaper.

[7] Flowers, L. (2017, April 24). Process still ongoing to change name of MTSU’s Forrest Hall. WKRN.COM.

[8] The full record of the correspondence that was sent from the president to the MTSU campus community has been published online.

[9] Allison, N. (2017, October 24). MTSU to lock dorms, cancel two Saturday events due to ‘White Lives Matter’ rally. The Daily News Journal.

[10] One MTSU faculty member, Rebekka King, has written about the way she spoke with her students about this event.

[11] Levenson, E. (2017, October 29). White nationalists met by counterprotesters cancel second rally in Tennessee. CNN.

[12] Burch, E. (2017, October 22). Murfreesboro groups spread messages of love ahead of planned white supremacy rally. WSMV.com.

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One Response to What’s the Cost? Impacts of ‘Free Speech’ demonstrations on College Campuses

  1. Eric Bain-Selbo says:

    Certainly the messages of these groups are repulsive. At the same time, I agree that it is critical that we use these real world examples as learning opportunities for our students.

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