The University of Florida said Thursday it is reluctantly agreeing to allow Richard Spencer to speak on campus this month, the white nationalist’s first college event since he led hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists through the University of Virginia in August.
The University of Florida event, scheduled for Oct. 19, seems destined to be the next lightning rod at a time when free speech and hate speech are being fiercely debated at campuses across the country.
The university said it had no recourse to prevent Spencer from speaking because, as a state institution, it must allow all points of view.
The August march at U-Va. — with people chanting “Jews will not replace us!” — touched off violence between demonstrators and counterprotesters that turned deadly the next day in Charlottesville when a man drove into a crowd, killing one woman and injuring others. Two police officers who were monitoring the protests died when their helicopter crashed.
In the days that followed, several public universities denied Spencer a platform.
The University of Florida initially rejected a request by the National Policy Institute, which Spencer leads, to hold a campus event in September “based on specific security threats,” according to Janine Sikes, a university spokeswoman.
But Spencer and his supporters — and a lawyer — challenged that decision, citing the First Amendment.
This spring, after Auburn University blocked a speech by Spencer, a federal judge overturned the cancellation, ruling it was unconstitutional to ban the speech based on on its content and that there was not evidence Spencer advocated violence.
In September, Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student who is helping to organize Spencer’s college tour, sued Michigan State University, seeking to force the school to let Spencer speak on campus. The lawsuit claimed the decision to deny the group permission to rent event space violated constitutional rights.
“It’s terribly important,” Spencer said of the University of Florida’s decision. “It’s not just important for me. It is clearly a free-speech issue.”
“When one just says things that are anodyne or conventional, free speech is not in question,” he said. “But when someone says something controversial and radical, then the rubber hits the road.”
Sikes emphasized the university had not invited Spencer, and said in a statement, “Although UF leadership has denounced Spencer’s white supremacist rhetoric, the university, as a state entity, must allow the free expression of all viewpoints. ”
She said the school is charging the institute more than $10,000 to rent the facility and to provide security inside its performing arts center, and that additional security costs would be borne by the university.
“Since safety of students, faculty, staff and visitors to campus is the university’s top priority, UF will end up paying at least $500,000 to enhance security on campus and in the city of Gainesville,” Sikes said.
“This includes costs from the University of Florida Police Department, Gainesville Police Department, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida Highway Patrol and other agencies who are providing first responders.”
The University of California at Berkeley has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security for controversial speakers this year, as violent clashes between far-left and far-right extremists erupted on campus and in the city.
“The fact that so much money is going to have to be spent on security results directly from people who want to shut down free speech,” Spencer said. “They do not want me to go and engage with students, bring new ideas to campus, et cetera. They are attempting a heckler’s veto. They are attempting to determine who gets to say things, and what gets said. We need to fight this.”
Spencer said he is concerned about violence, especially from antifascist groups.
At other events headlined by Spencer, protesters have joined forces to counter his message or to prevent him from speaking entirely, saying hate speech has no place on their campus.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Spencer said. “I expect good intellectual push-back from the students. That’s part of the fun of it all.”
Sikes noted that the university has launched a web page to keep the community informed: freespeech.ufl.edu.