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No violence, but UB speaker greeted with tension, heckling

It wasn't Berkeley or Middlebury, by any stretch.

But controversial speaker Robert Spencer was repeatedly shouted down and heckled at the podium Monday inside a University at Buffalo lecture room, as he tried to give a talk on "Exposing Radical Islam: The Dangers of Jihad in Today's World."

Two hundred people, most of them clearly opposed to Spencer's point of view on Islam, sat in on the talk, while another 100 or more people were kept outside the room by university police due to fire code limits inside.

University officials and police had been on alert for the potential for significant demonstrations, in light of recent havoc at other campuses across the country over conservative-leaning speakers like Spencer, an author whose books on terrorism have been widely criticized by Islamic groups as anti-Muslim.

Spencer used a microphone during his talk but was frequently drowned out by shouts and chants to let more students inside. Some students called him a Nazi, while others yelled for him to shut up.

Spencer at times pulled out his cellphone to record the boisterous crowd. The attempt to silence someone who has a differing viewpoint was a "quintessentially fascist act, and you are manifesting it in a wonderful way tonight," said Spencer. "What you have in this room besides the manifestation of fascism is a very interesting phenomenon in that I would doubt that any one of you has read a single thing I've written."

Students began showing up to demonstrate against Spencer nearly two hours before his talk.

Tension had been building on campus since the conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom announced Spencer's visit in April.

One of the aims of the group, which has had a chapter at UB since February, is to bring conservative-minded speakers to campus.

Within days, graduate student Alexandra Prince circulated a petition condemning Spencer as a "notorious Islamophobe and hate monger" and urging that student fees not be used to give him a platform on campus for hate speech.

Spencer frequently discusses terrorism by Muslims as being religiously motivated, an argument that has put him in the cross-hairs of American Muslims who say his interpretation of Islam is dangerously inaccurate and perverts their faith.

Spencer is part of a speaker's bureau organized by the national Young Americans for Freedom Foundation, and he frequently talks on college campuses at the invitation of local YAF chapters.

The reaction Monday from students was the latest example of campus unrest over provocative speakers who relish the opportunity to deliver conservative messages on campuses where liberal and progressive thought tends to dominate.

In some cases, the protests have turned violent, raising concerns that campuses were too easily allowing demonstrators to trample upon the ideals of free expression and open debate that are supposed to be hallmarks of higher education.

A Middlebury College professor ended up with whiplash and a concussion trying to flee a group of protesters who were incensed by the appearance of scholar Charles Murray on campus in March. A few weeks later, Manhattan Institute researcher Heather MacDonald, a critic of the Black Lives Matter movement and author of "The War on Cops," was forced to deliver a talk to a largely empty hall, after protesters blockaded the entrance to the room. Political pundit Ann Coulter's speech at the University of California, Berkeley, planned for last week, was canceled amid safety and security concerns, with Coulter blasting the university for not being more supportive of free speech.

Coulter is a frequent YAF speaker, as well. In February, Berkeley also canceled an appearance by former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos after protests turned violent, leading to six injuries and a reported $100,000 in property damage on campus.

Monday's talk did not get violent, but some students who were not allowed in after capacity was reached argued with police, as students inside the room shouted loudly to "Let them in!"

Due to fire safety codes, some UB students were not allowed to enter the lecture hall to hear Robert Spencer in Knox Hall on the North Campus Monday, May 1, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Lynn Sementilli, president of the UB chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, said immediately before Spencer took the microphone that she hoped people would allow him to speak and then ask him questions when he was finished.

"I don't know what to expect. You never know what people are going to do," said Sementilli, a senior studying electrical engineering at UB.

But Prince, the graduate student who circulated the petition, said Young Americans for Freedom knew exactly what they were trying to do by inviting Spencer to campus. She said his appearance was "part of a larger systemic effort" to bring people from the radical right to campuses to create tension and incite violence.

Spencer posed a threat to students on campus, particularly Muslim students, through his rhetoric of hate, said Prince.

"There's a threat that he's already inspired a known mass murderer in Norway," she said. Prince was referencing the 2011 lone wolf terror attack by Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Norway and was later found to have cited Spencer's writings in a manifesto about the attacks.

"I'm not Muslim, but I understand what has happened at other universities when these speakers come in," added Prince.

Opponents of Spencer's views appeared to outnumber those who wanted to hear him speak by at least a 10 to 1 ratio.

Akram Shibly, a 2015 UB graduate who is Muslim, stood up to encourage people not to shout down the speaker.

"Even though this man has directly attacked my faith, my people, I say let him speak so we can speak back," said Shibly.

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The crowd quieted down somewhat when Spencer agreed to a debate with Pasha Syed, imam of the Jami Mosque on Genesee Street.

The session continued for about an hour after police allowed Syed, who was waiting outside, into the room. Spencer left campus without incident, and police said they made no arrests.

Afterward, Sementilli said she was disappointed by the student heckling. But, she added, "We will continue to try and bring speakers to campus and coordinate them well so there will be a productive dialogue."

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