Auburn's Honors College is facing backlash from students and University faculty members after college officials invited the president of the Auburn White Student Union to speak before a film screening this week.
The White Student Union president — an Auburn student who typically goes by the alias Wyatt Mann — accepted an invitation from the Honors College to speak before a Monday night screening of a documentary discussing white nationalism and white supremacy, according to interviews with several individuals in attendance and a now-deleted statement from the Honors College.
The event was intended to foster a discussion about the origins of white supremacist and nationalist thought and ideology, but dozens of faculty and students said in a letter Friday that the college's actions were more akin to "sponsoring a hate group" than fostering civil discussion and critique.
Mann was originally scheduled to attend the event in person, according to those familiar with the plans, but instead delivered a 20–25-minute talk via Skype audio. The president refuses to publicly release his name and often masks his identity by refusing to show his face or appear in public
The letter, signed by more than 60
"We are in favor of allowing free speech and a diversity of perspectives on Auburn's campus, and we encourage people from different sides of controversial issues to engage in dialogue and face tough questions," the letter from the faculty read. "But there is a difference between allowing free speech and sponsoring a hate group, which is what the Auburn White Student Union has been designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center."
As The Plainsman reported Monday, the Auburn White Student Union — a group that often espouses white nationalist and white supremacist views — was included on this year's Hate Map, a widely recognized list of hate groups operating nationwide.
The WSU was the only hate group operating on a University campus using the school's name, though the University last year disavowed the group and denied them any official recognition. Full membership in the group is open only to white students of European descent, and the organization uses orange and blue coloring for logos while their Twitter currently displays an image of the Quad Center.
The University has repeatedly denounced the group since its inception in April 2017.
Students and faculty have raised concerns with the Honors College that the invitation to the White Student Union appeared to normalize or accept racism. After the Honors College announced the event on its Twitter, the White Student Union retweeted the post and added, "We /establishment/ now, fam."
In a statement issued to The Plainsman Friday afternoon, the University said administrators are committed to creating an inclusive campus environment and promoting academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas.
"The content of that event left some with concerns over its impact on our campus," the statement read. "We do not support the beliefs expressed by members of the White Student Union, a group that is not affiliated with the University, nor do we support our campus becoming a platform for the advancement of them. Auburn University will continue to rise to the challenge of learning and demonstrating the merits of productive civil discourse."
The full statement from Auburn University is appended at the bottom of this article.
Throughout the semester, the Honors College has been hosting a "day time" and "night time" film series. The "day time" film series "highlights the American immigrant experience," while the "night" shows highlighted "hard-hitting contemporary issues." The films have been open to all students but were created as a way for honors students to earn honors credits, according to the original statement from the Honors College.
So far this semester, the series has invited a former meth user to introduce a film about addiction to hard drugs and Auburn's Spectrum LGBT+ group to introduce a film entitled the "The Trans List." Future events include a film screening of "Baltimore Rising," featuring the Baltimore protests following the death of Freddie Gray and "covers the perspectives of Black Lives Matter protests."
By defending their invitation to the WSU saying they have previously invited other groups, some said the Honors College seemingly equated the White Student Union — an organization that advocates for an all-white society and ethnonationalism — with the Black Lives Matter movement. The Black Lives Matter movement advocates an end to racism and police brutality.
Others wondered why the group was normalizing a white nationalist group.
"Since (the Monday event) the only question we have heard is: why ... why are you legitimizing this group?" the now-deleted statement from the Honors College read. "The answer is simple, we have been doing this all semester long."
As part of Monday night's event, Mann was booked to speak about the White Student Union and answer questions ahead of the presentation of a film called "Skinheads USA: Soldiers of the Race War."
"We are proud that our students understand that all opinions are valid, and we can only grow and learn from each other when we create an environment to listen," the statement from the Honors College read.
So, what is the White Student Union?
The White Student Union denies being "white supremacist," a label which their president, in an email sent to The Plainsman, said was "grossly unfair." Instead, the group identifies with white separatism and the alt-right — a movement defined as an offshoot of conservatism that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism — and says they only seek to advance the interests of white people.
But archived blog posts on their website and social media accounts provide a somewhat more holistic description of their beliefs.
Full membership in the group is reserved for only individuals of "European ancestry and good character." Resources provided by the group direct students to anti-Semitic posts and a YouTube video entitled "The Case for White Nationalism."
In other social media and blog posts on their website, the group blamed the rape of an 18-year-old girl on a Tiger Transit in September on "interracial violence" perpetrated by black people against white people.
"Black-on-White rape by far exceeds vice versa per the National Crime Victimization Survey," the group wrote in a Twitter post. Another post blamed "black-on-white violence" for the 2008 murder of Auburn student Lauren Burk — whose death was 10 years ago this coming Sunday.
Last year, when a federal court forced the University to allow white supremacist and ethnonationalist Richard Spencer to speak on campus, despite the University's refusal, the group labeled the turn of events as a "yuge victory."
"[I]t shows that our violent (and nasty!) opponents cannot silence us with a Heckler’s veto. What an amazing victory for the movement and our people!" a post on their website reads.
Spencer is the president of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think tank, and claims to have coined the term "alt-right." He rose to national prominence in 2016 when said "Heil Trump" — taken from the Nazi German phrase "Heil Hitler" — and denounced Jews at a gathering of white supremacist NPI members in Washington, D.C. His supporters gave the Nazi salute.
The first post on the WSU website, from April 7, 2017, links to an anti-Semitic pamphlet that discusses the "anti-Gentile, anti-Christian Noahide Laws that secret Jewish cults one day want to force upon the whole world."
Like many other white nationalist groups — and Richard Spencer — the White Student Union uses buzzwords like "globalists" and Nazi Germany-era phrases like the "Lying Press" ("Lugenpresse") to convey conspiracy theories about Jewish control over media and society.
Lecia Brooks, an outreach director with the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked hate groups and hate activity since the 1990s, said the persistence of Auburn's White Student Union could be a rallying cry for white nationalists on other college campuses.
"If they're successful in maintaining a presence as an actual group without being affiliated with the University then it could influence the creation of these white student unions across other campuses," Brooks said.
Auburn University Statement on Honors College Event
"Auburn University is committed to creating an inclusive campus environment where all students are welcome and encouraged to engage and thrive. We promote academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas as essential elements of a vibrant university. As a research institution, robust exchanges within the marketplace of ideas should be fueled by critical thinking and tempered with respect for the individual and for diverse views. Often at Auburn, our values of free speech and the divisiveness of dissenting perspectives are in conflict. The result of this conflict can sometimes create an unwelcoming environment for members of the Auburn Family.
This week, members of our campus community voiced their concerns following an academic event sponsored by the Honors College. The content of that event left some with concerns over its impact on our campus. We do not support the beliefs expressed by members of the White Student Union, a group that is not affiliated with the university, nor do we support our campus becoming a platform for the advancement of them. Auburn University will continue to rise to the challenge of learning and demonstrating the merits of productive civil discourse.
As a campus community that values both free speech and human dignity, it is our responsibility to approach intellectual exchanges of opposing viewpoints in ways that reflect our support for a diverse learning environment and the educational benefits such an environment affords every student.
Constructive approaches to intellectually diverse exchanges have been modeled on our campus throughout this academic year. We remain committed to creating a campus environment where diverse viewpoints and civil discourse can coexist. As part of this commitment, we are investing in developmental opportunities that will better equip our campus to more skillfully engage and facilitate these important conversations in a constructive manner befitting a great, public,
land grantinstitution. In the coming days, members of the university’s administration will be meeting with student groups on campus to listen and continue fostering this important dialogue."