The University of Florida is considering allowing white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on campus in October, school officials announced Thursday.
“I think they are going to protect the event and it’s going to go really well,” Spencer said. “I’m excited about it.”
Colleges across the country are wrestling with how best to handle divisive speakers at a time when the country is so polarized that some events this year have led to violent clashes.
Spencer and hundreds of white nationalists and white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia’s campus last month with torches. It was the beginning of a series of confrontations that turned fatal the next day in Charlottesville, when a man drove into a crowd of people protesting white supremacy. One woman was killed in that crash, and others were injured. Two police officers monitoring the events also died when their helicopter went down.
In the days that followed, several public universities denied requests by the National Policy Institute, which Spencer leads, to hold events on campus.
Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student organizing Spencer’s tour, filed a lawsuit against Michigan State University this week seeking to force the school to let Spencer speak on campus, claiming the decision to deny the group permission to rent event space violated their constitutional rights.
This spring, after Auburn University canceled a speech by Spencer, a federal judge overturned the cancellation, citing a lack of evidence that Spencer advocated violence and ruling that a decision based on the content of the speech was unconstitutional.
Ohio State University recently denied a request for a Spencer event in mid-October “after determining that it is not possible to accommodate this request without substantial risk to public safety,” according to university spokesman Benjamin Johnson.
The University of Florida turned down a request for Spencer to speak Sept. 12. But on Thursday, university officials announced they were considering a request for a speech Oct. 19. They said their decision will not be official until they are satisfied that they can avoid safety risks, among other things.
“As a public institution, UF is required by law to make a good faith effort to provide options for a reasonable date, time and campus venue, no matter how much we detest the points of views expressed,” they wrote in a statement. The university will assess safety and security risks; officials have been meeting daily with state, local and federal law enforcement agencies for the past month on a comprehensive campus and community security plan, they wrote.
“UF deplores Spencer’s and the National Policy Institute’s rhetoric and views, which run counter to those of this institution. We also acknowledge that many of our students, faculty and staff are disproportionately impacted by their racism,” the statement said.
However, the statement said, “UF supports the constitutional right to free speech, and our role as a public university includes legal obligations to allow a wide range of viewpoints to be expressed by external groups — even when they are contrary to the core values of our university.”
Gary Edinger, a lawyer representing Spencer, his institute and Padgett, said in an email Thursday afternoon, as Hurricane Irma appeared headed for Florida, “My clients expect that a formal contract will be signed within a few days — weather permitting!
“This was no doubt a sensitive and difficult issue for the University of Florida, but all citizens should be pleased that the First Amendment was ultimately respected.”
Spencer said he is also hoping to speak at some private universities: “I think it would be very important to set a precedent that I can come speak at a private university, these ideas can be discussed at a private university. The alt-right and Richard Spencer and identitarians, we are part of the conversation.”