The University Of Florida Really Does Have To Let Richard Spencer Speak

Christopher Mathias

About 40 percent of the student body at the University of Florida in Gainesville is non-white. This Thursday, their school will host a famous white supremacist who has called for the “peaceful ethnic cleansing” of the U.S. to create a “white ethno-state.”  Some Nazi-enthusiast fanboys will be there to cheer him on.

The university said legally it has no choice but to let Richard Spencer speak at the school, however evil and repugnant his views might be, and even if it means spending $500,000 on security — roughly equal to the yearly tuition for 78 in-state undergraduate students.

Richard Spencer's Thursday speech has prompted a state of emergency declaration by Florida's governor. (Jim Bourg / Reuters)

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) this week, in a move usually reserved for natural disasters, declared a state of emergency. 

“Prior speaking engagements involving Mr. Spencer at universities in Alabama, California, Texas, and Virginia have sparked protests and counter-protests resulting in episodes of violence, civil unrest, and multiple arrests,” said Scott’s executive order, which makes more law enforcement resources available. 

Spencer tweeted out a photo of a hurricane approaching Florida with his head at the center. “BREAKING,” he wrote,” Hurricane Ricardo expected to hit Gainesville this Thursday.”

In the two months since he was a top-billed speaker at the large white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — which erupted into violence and ended with a neo-Nazi allegedly running down counter-protesters with a car, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer —  Spencer has been busy suing or threatening to sue a slew of state universities who refused to offer him a venue to speak.

Some universities — thanks to America’s expansive free speech laws and an early 1990s Supreme Court decision — have since capitulated. Spencer will likely get his post-Charlottesville campus speaking tour. And Gainesville is his first stop.

“As a state entity, UF must allow the free expression of speech,” the school said in a Q&A it posted online. “We cannot prohibit groups or individuals from speaking in our public forums except for limited exceptions, which include safety and security.”

The university, according to the Q&A, initially blocked Spencer from speaking in September due to “specific threats and a date that fell soon after the Charlottesville event.” Allowing him to speak in October gave the university more time to make security arrangements.

White supremacists march through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017, the night before holding a violent "Unite The Right" rally. (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

There’s a reason Spencer has targeted state universities, Dr. Clay Calvert, a professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Florida, told HuffPost.

“Private universities could exclude Spencer without First Amendment issues,” he said. But because state universities are government institutions, the “First Amendment is triggered.”

A university could deny a platform to a speaker who incites violence or “imminent lawless action,” Calvert said, but not simply for “offensive rhetoric.” (In April, a federal judge forced Auburn University in Alabama to host Spencer, ruling that there was no evidence he advocated violence.)

Still, Spencer’s offensive rhetoric has led to violent clashes between his white nationalist supporters and counter-protesters. When he holds an event at a university, a large police presence is required.

And according to the Supreme Court, it’s up to the university to pay for it. Deciding on a case in 1992, Justice Harry Blackmun laid out the legal doctrine known as the “heckler’s veto.”

Speech, Blackmun wrote, “cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob.” In other words, speech can’t be prohibited because of financial issues. In Spencer’s case, that means the University of Florida is stuck with the $500,000 in security costs.

Spencer, speaking to HuffPost, put the blame for the security costs on counter-protesters. That money, he said, is “not to protect the university from me or anyone on the ‘alt-right.’” Instead, it’s himself and supporters who need protection from leftist groups like Antifa, he said.

“Obviously, I’m not going to engage in any violence,” Spencer said. 

Although the University of Florida can’t stop Spencer from speaking here Thursday, there is potentially a way it could block him in the future.

Spencer wasn’t invited or sponsored by a student group to speak at the University of Florida. He paid $10,000 to rent a campus venue. Some public universities, however, require those renting venues to have a student sponsor.

But if the University of Florida were to add this requirement, Calvert said, that would “probably destroy a lot of other speech.” And the requirement doesn’t always stop white nationalists from coming to campuses.

Former Breitbart News editor and white nationalist provocateur Milo Yiannoppoulos found a handful of supportive students at a conservative student newspaper at the University of Berkeley. They offered to sponsor an event last month for him, and he in turn gave money to their newspaper. (What had been planned as a four-day rally, however, ended up as a small gathering on a single day.)

Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley in September.  (Christopher Mathias HuffPost)

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said universities shouldn’t be looking for ways to block white supremacists from speaking on campus in the first place. That’s what they want, he said. 

Spencer “wants to wrap himself in the First Amendment,” Cohen told HuffPost. “If he had his druthers, the university would deny him and he would go to the court and win, and he could claim to be a First Amendment hero.”

So what to do if a white supremacist shows up on campus? The SPLC recommends depriving them of a spectacle.

“Hold an alternative event ― away from the alt-right event ― to highlight your cam­pus’ commitment to inclusion and our nation’s democratic values,”  the group says on its website.

Getting used to ignoring Nazis is a pretty dangerous path to start heading down, as I think even a casual student of history can tell you." Roxanne Palmer, Gainesville resident.

But there are many in Gainesville who plan on confronting the Spencer and his supporters. Hundreds if not thousands are expected for a #NoNazisAtUF march through campus Thursday to the Phillips Center for Performing Arts, where Spencer will be speaking.

Timothy Tia, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Florida and a #NoNazisAtUF organizer, told HuffPost people like Spencer have to be considered a serious threat to this country. They are white supremacists, after all, who want to take power.

“It might be unthinkable now, but it was unthinkable two years ago that someone as divisive and offensive as Donald Trump would become president,” Tia said.  

Roxanne Palmer, a 30-year-old cartoonist and barista who is on the steering committee for the Central Florida Democratic Socialists of America, said it’s important to confront people like Spencer on campus.

“Getting used to ignoring Nazis is a pretty dangerous path to start heading down, as I think even a casual student of history can tell you,” she said.

 “Protests are never that popular in their own time,” Palmer said. “Most moderate, centrist people look back on the civil rights movement with near-universal fondness, but at the time, white folks thought that sit-ins and Freedom Rides were hurting the cause. They weren’t necessarily opposed to the ideas of these groups, but [thought], ‘Please, stop making such a fuss.’”

She continued: “If people continue to say we should just ignore the alt-right, I have to ask: At what point do you STOP ignoring them? I know that, 10 years from now, I want to be able to say that when Nazis came to Gainesville, I stood up to them, shoulder to shoulder with friends and neighbors.”

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  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.