University of Tennessee students plan to protest Rick Tyler, a former Congressional candidate, who is scheduled to speak at the university on Tuesday.
On-campus speakers with controversial opinions have prompted student protests at colleges and university across the country. Some higher education institutions have rescinded invitations. Others have distanced themselves from the speakers’ views but ultimately allowed the event to take place, either out of respect for freedom of speech or a legal obligation.
State and federal law bound the university to allow Tyler to speak, University of Tennessee Interim Chancellor Wayne Davis said. Tyler was not sponsored or hosted by any university-affiliated organization and rented space in the Alumni Memorial Building. Davis explained that legally, the school cannot base its decisions on who to rent the facility to based on the speaker’s viewpoint.
“I want to be clear: white nationalism is contrary to our values as a university—racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry should have no place on Rocky Top,” Davis said.
To contrast his speech, the University of Tennessee Progressive Student Alliance organized a protest outside the Alumni Memorial Building, beginning an hour before Tyler’s 6 p.m. CDT event. The student group criticized administrators for allowing a “fascist to occupy a room on campus.”
“The UTK administration is aware of the violent ideology Tyler is attempting to spread and is complacent in his presence of Rocky Top,” the event page said. “It is clear that white nationalists feel that UTK is a good place to spread their message, and the administration’s complacency only reinforces their welcome on this campus. ”
Evora Kreis, a Progressive Student Alliance co-chair, told Newsweek that the protest’s goal is to send the message that white nationalism doesn’t have a place at the school. Kreis also pushed for a stronger response from university officials.
“The University of Tennessee administration is failing its students by allowing a hateful white nationalist speaker to spread his hateful message on our campus,” Kreis said. “The statements UTK has released is not enough. The students of UTK demand action against the violent and hateful speech of this speaker.”
Identified as the 2020 Freedom Party presidential candidate on a flyer, Tyler’s speech on the public university’s Knoxville campus was titled “White Nationalism: Fact vs Fiction.” A flyer promised it would be “compelling, controversial and challenging.”
In 2016, Tyler ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress and put up a billboard that said, “Make America White Again.” The Southern Poverty Law Center reported he’s been active with the white nationalist movement for more than 30 years.
“We REFUSE to tolerate white supremacy on Rocky Top! Stand with UTK PSA in combating white supremacy and the white silence of our administrators,” the protest event page said. “Together we will make our voices heard.”
To prepare for the speech, the Alumni Memorial Building was closed all day and several roads near the building were closed at 4 p.m. CDT on Tuesday. His speech was originally scheduled for May 13 but was changed to Tuesday.
This article has been updated to include comment from Evora Kreis.