Truman State University prepares to host divisive speaker

KIRKSVILLE, Mo. (AP) — Some students at Truman State University in northeast Missouri are circulating a petition seeking to halt a speech by an author who runs the website “Jihad Watch.”

Concerns arose at the public university in Kirksville when a Republican student group arranged to bring Robert Spencer to campus Thursday night, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ( ) reported. The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies Spencer as an anti-Muslim “propagandist,” and the school’s Muslim Student Association has responded by recruiting another speaker to appear beforehand in the same lecture hall.

Truman State described allowing the event to proceed as a free speech issue, although leaders stressed the university isn’t sponsoring Spencer’s speech.

“Cordial discourse on even the most contentious of topics is a fundamental tenet of a liberal arts education and a hallmark of a free society,” the university said in emails to student, faculty, and staff this week. “This often includes viewpoints many people strongly oppose.”

Disputes over speakers have erupted at several other college campuses in recent months, including schools in California, Vermont and North Dakota.

Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he was concerned about the number of schools canceling speeches, and he commended Truman State for not doing so.

“The trend we’re seeing is increasing normalcy of the idea of using violence or threats of violence to try to silence a speaker, coupled with universities unwillingness to take steps necessary to speak as planned,” he said. “When you put those two things together, you have a very bad environment for free speech on campus.”

Truman State spokesman Travis Miles said the university was hoping to create an essay contest and develop “an educational experience” based on the two speeches.

Speaking first will be Faizan Syed, the executive director of the Missouri chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Following him will be Spencer, who has defended himself on his website, writing that if “I am ‘anti-Muslim,’ then foes of the Nazis were ‘anti-German.'”

The College Republicans, which received about $3,000 to bring Spencer to campus from a student committee that allocates funding to student groups, said on Facebook that “unsafe practices will not be tolerated.” The Muslim Student Association also urged calm, requesting that there be no “disruptive protests.”