GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida is bracing for the possibility that thousands of demonstrators will descend Thursday to protest a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer even as administrators pleaded with students to stay away from the corner of campus where Spencer is scheduled to appear.
In an interview Wednesday, UF President W. Kent Fuchs said he believes Spencer benefits from demonstrations.
“I really believe that the protests are the oxygen on which the white nationalists and white supremacists survive,” Fuchs said. “I want the protesters to not give them what they seek. We need to speak up on our own platform, not [Spencer’s].”
Signs of Spencer’s impending visit were already evident Wednesday on Florida’s Spanish moss-shrouded campus.
At least 100 Florida state troopers gathered outside the Phillips Center on Wednesday to walk through preparations. A few students waiting at a bus stop watched silently as the troopers marched through the parking lot in formation and then stood around their commanders in two groups, listening to instructions.
A couple of local television news trucks were parked outside the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where Spencer is set to deliver his afternoon speech Thursday. Huge stacks of metal barricades that were ready to be erected into crowd control fences sat gleaming in the grass.
Authorities had already set up thick plastic barricades along Hull Road, fencing in the Harn Museum of Art, which resides within the same complex as the Phillips Center.
Metal barriers had been erected along a pathway that curves around the art museum and up to the Phillips Center, past a pond where a sign warns of alligators and snakes, and past the screened walls of the natural history museum’s celebrated butterfly rain forest exhibit. The museums will be closed Thursday.
The Jewish student center extended its hours — with extra security. UF has more Jewish students than any other university in the nation, according to Hillel International, a prominent Jewish student organization.
As Spencer’s speech approached, the faculty union at the state’s flagship university denounced the address and called on administrators to cancel the event “in the interest of safety of students and faculty.”
Students handed out “Gators not haters” T-shirts and took selfies with them. They created hashtags and videos and posters. They marched and shouted through bullhorns.
The school is giving Spencer the right to speak, said Ardyst Zigler, an Orlando senior who was one of many asking that classes be canceled Thursday. “But I think the safety and well-being of students should come before anything else,” she said.
Some students said they planned to avoid campus Thursday, and others planned to tune in to alternative programming, such as the virtual assembly that student leaders are conducting with a message of diversity and unity.
Fuchs said school administrators are aware that possibly thousands of demonstrators will be on campus to protest Spencer.
The weeks leading up to the speech have been stressful for the school, Fuchs said.
Spencer, who leads the National Policy Institute, was not invited by the university or its students, and UF leaders have rejected his message as hateful. But — after hearing from a lawyer representing Spencer and his supporters — university officials reluctantly acknowledged Spencer’s First Amendment right to speak at a campus venue they rent out.
More than 500 law enforcement officers are expected on campus Thursday, Fuchs said.
“It just has a different feel when you have that many on campus,” he said.
Fuchs said the final tab for the school to provide extra security and logistics for Spencer’s visit will probably top $600,000.
It is unfair, he said, that large public research universities are expected to pick up the cost for these events. “At some point, the courts will have to weigh in,” he said. “We can’t be the only ones sharing this burden.”
The University of California at Berkeley has spent more than $2.5 million on security for divisive speakers this year, starting in February with protests that turned violent when far-left extremists inflicted so much damage so quickly that university police canceled a speech by writer Milo Yiannopoulos before it even started.
Fuchs said he knows some students don’t want to hear his message about staying away from the event, especially if they believe that white supremacists need to be confronted directly. He thinks Spencer benefits from protests.
“By giving him attention and confronting him, it allows him to be portrayed as a victim and draws sympathy to him in some quarters,” Fuchs said.
And the UF president acknowledged some students and faculty are “very upset” with his decision to allow Spencer to speak.
If there is a silver lining in Spencer’s appearance at the school, Fuchs said, it is that it has led to “many good discussions about race, white supremacy and the First Amendment.”
But it has also been wearying for all involved.
“I’ll be glad when Friday comes,” Fuchs said.
Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.