A self-proclaimed Nazi is banned from the University of North Florida's campus - but will remain a student, university officials said.
Ken Parker, a 37-year-old Navy veteran who once served as the grand dragon, or highest-ranking leader, of the Ku Klux Klan in Jacksonville, Florida, was initially suspended after posting a photo of himself on Facebook holding an assault rifle and calling out students who challenged his beliefs, saying he will "shut them down." In the photo, Parker revealed a tattoo of a swastika on his chest.
"They completely misconstrued my quote. I never said I was ever going to shoot anybody," Parker told The Washington Post on Wednesday. "I didn't make any threats on campus. I leave my politics at home. I go to school. I attend my classes and then I go home."
The lifting of Parker's suspension comes at a time when universities across the country are wrangling with how to handle the presence of white nationalists on campus and walking the fine line between defending constitutional rights and protecting the safety of their students. Conservatives have also criticized universities for infringing on students' rights to free speech.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
The University of Michigan, for instance, is considering allowing white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on its campus, even though Spencer's views are "antithetical to everything we stand for at the University of Michigan," the school's president, Mark Schlissel, wrote in a letter to the campus Tuesday.
Parker left the KKK two years ago, he said, to join the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest and most notable neo-Nazi groups in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. His Facebook account was deactivated soon after he posted his photo, Parker said, in part because of the photo and because of a "history of getting myself thrown in Facebook jail for comments."
Outside the doors of a hearing Monday to determine Parker's fate at the University of North Florida, about 80 students and faculty members rallied to send a message to the university that Parker's beliefs were unwelcome. Among them were members of the grass-roots activist organization Students for a Democratic Society, whom Parker had specifically challenged in his Facebook post, he said. Members of the group could not be immediately reached.
A counterprotest was held by Parker's four friends, who he said include a member of the KKK and two members of the League of the South,which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a neo-Confederate group. Authorities with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the university's police department stood watch during the protests.
University President John Delaney said in a statement that a panel composed equally of students and faculty and staff members decided to lift Parker's suspension after meeting with him during his hearing. But to protect students' safety, Parker has been prohibited from stepping on campus with the exception of attending his second hearing, for which he will be escorted by a police officer, Delaney wrote.
Parker's second hearing, set to take place in a month before the end of the semester, will address several conduct violations with which he is being charged. Parker declined to say what those violations were.
"I have reasonably forecasted that this student's unsupervised presence on campus would pose a risk to his personal safety and would cause a substantial disruption of, and material interference with, the University's learning environment as well as the rights and safety of other students, staff and faculty," Delaney wrote.
Parker's ban from campus means he will have to take his classes off campus or online, he said. The junior political science major said at least one professor has arranged for him to take this semester's final exam at the local public library. Parker said he previously received an A in a class with the professor, who teaches anthropology and told Parker he was a good student who should not "get screwed over," he said.
Parker began attending the University of North Florida about two years ago, a few years after he ended his Navy service. He served for 11 years, he said, and is able to take classes at the university because of the GI Bill.
Some students and community members said they were disappointed by the decision to allow Parker to remain a student at the university.
"It's despicable. Disgusting," alumni and Jacksonville activist Christina Kittle told the Florida Times-Union. "It is so disrespectful to all the people that came together to show him that so many people were against this individual."
Ryan McClure, an organizer of Students for a Democratic Society, told the Times-Union that Parker was a potential threat and that the university's president is "willing to put students at risk."
In the past year, colleges have had to confront questions about violence and free speech, with clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters at or near college campuses. A fifth of undergraduate students now say it's acceptable to silence a speaker with physical force if they make "offensive and hurtful statements," according to a September survey of students conducted by the Brookings Institution.
The University of California at Berkeley has been the site of multiple incidents after conservatives such as commentator Ann Coulter had been invited to speak there, and in August, a rally by several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists at the University of Virginia resulted in shoving, punching and the spraying of chemical irritants by both groups. One counterprotester died during a second rally the next day.
Parker said he was surprised that the university's reason for keeping him off campus was because of student safety.
"I think it's kind of funny that the university says, 'Oh, we should embrace diversity and have all these thoughts and ideas floating around,'" he said. "They want to hear thoughts and ideas they agree with. I'm not going to hurt anyone on campus."