The University of Florida is bracing for a speech by the white nationalist Richard Spencer on campus later this month, coming after he led another torchlight rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Saturday night with supporters chanting, “You will not replace us.”
The Florida school had canceled a planned speech by Spencer in September after clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters turned violent at the University of Virginia in August, with tensions worsening the next day in Charlottesville. A man drove into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman and injuring many others.
That violence led several public universities to deny Spencer a platform in the days that followed, saying the First Amendment does not require them to risk imminent violence. But as time passed, Spencer’s supporters increased pressure on the schools, filing and threatening lawsuits.
Now, the University of Florida is in the position of spending an anticipated $500,000 to try to ensure security on campus for a speaker it did not invite and does not want to host.
Concerns about security during Spencer’s visit are forcing the university to close one of its biggest outpatient clinics and surgery centers, postponing medical services, one of the school’s top doctors said.
Spencer’s actions from this past weekend - when he led another protest in Charlottesville - do not change plans for the Oct. 19 speech in Gainesville, Florida, university spokeswoman Janine Sikes said Monday, “but we are paying attention.”
So are many others. And not just schools such as the University of North Carolina and Penn State, which denied Spencer a platform post-Charlottesville. Others view it as an incendiary test of a constitutional issue that touches on many of the political and racial tensions simmering across the country.
“People are concerned for their well-being and safety,” said Dwayne Fletcher, a senior who is president of the University of Florida’s Black Student Union. “I personally don’t want him on campus either, especially since the incidents in Charlottesville… .
“Gainesville will definitely have a different atmosphere in the days to come, and afterward, because of his presence,” Fletcher said. He said some students are having a hard time accepting the university’s decision to allow Spencer, and his message, to come to their school.
Even though they reject “Spencer’s white supremacist rhetoric, the university, as a state entity, must allow the free expression of all viewpoints, ” Sikes said.
In the spring, a federal judge overturned Auburn University’s decision to cancel a speech by Spencer, ruling there was no evidence Spencer advocated violence and that it was unconstitutional to ban the speech because of its content.
In September, Cameron Padgett, who is helping to organize Spencer’s college tour, sued Michigan State University in an effort to force the school to let Spencer speak on campus.
Padgett is described in the suit as supporting “Identitarian philosophy … a Eurocentric political ideology which advocates the preservation of national identity and a return to traditional Western values.” The case argues that people on the political left find the views of the National Policy Institute, which Spencer leads, objectionable and seek to shut down his events despite it being constitutionally protected speech.
Spencer presented it as an important issue. “When one just says things that are anodyne or conventional, free speech is not in question,” he said last week. “But when someone says something controversial and radical, then the rubber hits the road.”
He said the anticipated security costs stem directly from people trying to keep him from bringing his ideas to campus. At other venues, protesters have rallied to drown out his message or to try to shut down his event, saying they can’t allow hate speech in their community.
The University of California at Berkeley has spent $2.8 million on security for divisive speakers this year after violent clashes erupted between far-left and far-right extremists. In February, some anti-fascist and other left-wing protesters were so swiftly destructive - throwing rocks, setting fires - that university police canceled a speech to restore order.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Spencer said. “I expect good intellectual pushback from the students. That’s part of the fun of it all.”
David Quillen, the head of the University of Florida faculty senate, a trustee and an associate professor in the College of Medicine, rejected the idea that there would be some kind of intellectual exchange.
“We’re not going to have a debate, because these aren’t issues people need to debate,” he said Monday. “Bigotry and racism don’t need debate - they are what they are.”
He said most faculty understand the university is obligated to allow Spencer to speak, but that there are real costs. Not just the money for security, which takes funding away from their educational mission, but, “Mr. Spencer’s visit causes real fear and anxiety in some of our faculty, staff and students… . This fear will cause some to miss classes, postpone exams and interferes with our educational, research and service missions.”
Fletcher expects protesters.
He doesn’t plan to be one of them.
He weighed the different outcomes. “If there’s something to gain, some kind of change that would be enacted, I’d be willing to go out and protest,” he said. “If it’s ideology versus ideology… .
“But that’s not a forum where people can go out and speak to each other, have a heart-to-heart conversation. I don’t see the worth outweighing the risk, especially in light of what happened in Charlottesville.”