A college campus can be a welcoming environment for free speech — even unpopular speech — without resorting to violence.
Or at least that is what the governor of Florida is hoping.
Rick Scott, a Republican, knows what can happen when a group of white supremacists descend onto a college town chanting things like “Jews will not replace us.” It's what happened this past summer in Charlottesville when white nationalist Richard Spencer led a group of white supremacists on a march at the University of Virginia to protest efforts to remove Confederate memorials.
But Spencer's latest event is a speech that the university agreed to, in part under threat of a lawsuit, and officials have taken unique measures to minimize the potential for conflict.
The Washington Post's Lori Rozsa and Susan Svrluga reported:
Spencer will be corralled into a corner of the 2,000-acre campus in Gainesville, 2½ miles away from the center of the university and most of its classrooms.
Nearby buildings, including two museums and a student recreation center, will be shut down.
Access to the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where Spencer is slated to speak, will be limited; no vehicles or bicycles will be allowed. If people — including counterprotesters — want to get to the speech, they will have to walk a significant distance.
So by declaring a state of emergency, Scott is trying to prevent a similar spectacle from happening again. And with good reason, considering that the August event in Virginia quickly became violent.
The governor said silencing Spencer is not his goal, but preventing violence is.
“We live in a country where everyone has the right to voice their opinion,” he said. “However, we have zero tolerance for violence, and public safety is always our number one priority.”
Spencer told The Post he doesn't want his group to start any violence.
“We don’t want any of our people to be the one to throw the first punch,” he said, expecting anti-fascist protesters to initiate violence. “We don’t want them to do anything to harm our movement.”
“We can’t stoop down to their level,” Spencer added.
But Spencer's goal is to be disruptive, as is clear from his social media accounts, where he mocked Scott for putting his event on the same level as hurricanes.
BREAKING: Hurricane Ricardo expected to hit Gainsville this Thursday. pic.twitter.com/85eDCcnvdZ
— Richard ☝Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) October 16, 2017
Politicians can't control Spencer's message, but they can control how to respond to it. Thursday will be another opportunity for President Trump to show Americans that he is not sympathetic to the vision of white supremacists, no matter how supportive they are of him. It will also give Scott the opportunity to show that he wants to respect the First Amendment rights of the residents of his extraordinarily diverse state.
Preparation to ensure there are no Charlottesville or Berkeley-like incidents in Gainesville this weekend could be important for Scott for another reason: He's considering a run for the Senate in 2018, with encouragement from Trump. How he responds to the views of his citizens when it comes to issues related to race in America will be a focus of much interest, and bungling the handling of a potentially volatile situation wouldn't do him any favors in that race.