Fall is usually a busy time of year in college towns, but during the ongoing fall semester at the University of Florida, the City of Gainesville — the seat of otherwise-rural Alachua County — has been shaken.
First, it was stormy weather from Hurricane Irma, which interrupted electrical service for several days in September, followed this month by the sudden death of the city’s beloved native son, rock star Tom Petty.
Now, the community is bracing for the planned arrival next week of “alt-right” champion Richard Spencer.
“This is our moment to rise up and show the rest of the world who we are as a community,” Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe, brows furrowed, said in a 3-minute-long video titled, “Responding to Hatred in a Welcoming City,” posted Wednesday on Facebook.
“Free speech stops when it becomes dangerous conduct,” Poe said in the video. “We have an obligation to protect our residents’ health and safety and to protect property.”
During Spencer’s address on the UF campus — set for Thursday, Oct. 19, from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts — local law enforcement will “stand ready to safeguard that Gainesville does not become another Charlottesville,” Poe said in the video, referring to violent demonstrations that erupted in another college town, Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the University of Virginia, when Spencer spoke there in August.
At that time, Spencer was scheduled to speak at UF on Sept. 12, but the university canceled that engagement after 32-year-old Heather Heyer was fatally injured in Charlottesville while protesting Spencer and other white supremacists, who advocate what they describe as “ethnic cleansing” within the United States.
In response to University of Florida President Kent Fuchs’ initial refusal, in August, to rent space for Spencer to speak on the UF campus — citing a risk of violence to students — Gainesville-based First Amendment lawyer Gary Edinger threatened the university with a federal lawsuit, and Spencer’s speaking engagement was rescheduled to October.
As a result, the university’s largest performing arts hall, which seats more than 1,700, has been made available to Spencer and the National Policy Institute that he directs. The fee for the rental is what the university — on a detailed webpage (freespeech.ufl.edu) created in preparation for the speaking event — describes as “the allowable costs of $10,564 to rent the facility and for security within the venue.”
The arrangement — the result of a settlement crafted in part by Edinger — satisfies the letter of the law, but the university is exercising its opposition to Spencer in other ways.
The website for the Phillips Performing Arts Center, where Spencer is scheduled to speak, includes no mention of his engagement. And according to UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes, the parking lot and garage usually used by those attending events there will be closed to cars during Spencer’s engagement, open only to those who arrive on foot. She said she was not aware of any other time when the parking facilities there had been closed.
An extensive list of items that the university will prohibit in that area during Spencer’s speaking engagement also includes “bicycles, scooters and skateboards,” as well as “weapons, firearms Tasers, knives and sharp objects” and “lighters matches, torches or open flame,” “any athletic equipment or other items which could be used as a weapon” and “backpacks, bags, purses, clutches” and more.
On Tuesday, Fuchs posted on Facebook a video message of approximately two minutes: “Over the past several months, our nation’s great public research universities have increasingly become the targets of individuals and groups who intend to gain national publicity for their messages of racism and hate by inciting protest, which has led to violence.”
His comments — also emailed to UF’s more than 50,000 students, faculty members and staff members — noted that he was “surprised and even shocked to learn that UF is required by law to allow Mr. Spencer to speak his racist views on our campus.”
But Joseph Little — a longtime professor at the UF law school, a former mayor of Gainesville and also co-counsel with Edinger in the lawsuit that was planned on Spencer’s behalf — wrote Wednesday in an email to a reporter: “UF’s lawyers should not be surprised by what the First Amendment requires and should have kept President Fuchs fully informed. I suspect we would not have heard this expression from UF if the speaker had been a left-wing activist …”
Little described Fuchs’ remarks as “overly defensive and even designed to interfere with Spencer’s First Amendment rights.”
“Under the law, neither UF nor any other similarly situated public institution may discriminate on the basis of the content of a presenter’s presentation, absent illegal presentations such as pornography and immediate incitement to violence,” he wrote.
Free speech rights were also the focus of a panel discussion Wednesday night at UF, featuring Dr. Clay Calvert, the director of the university’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, and Professor Kenneth Nunn, of the UF law school, and Dr. Paul Ortiz, a history professor.
Around 300 students and several faculty members, as well as Fuchs, attended the 90-minute event.
“We are having this conversation in a room that is beautiful in its diversity,” said Nunn, who also teachers in UF’s African-American Studies program.
Among the several students who asked questions of the panel members was Hunter Wolff, a 19-year-old who described herself as second-year political science student from Orlando.
In a discussion after the event concluded, Wolff said that although she plans to attend classes Oct. 19, she did not expect to attend Spencer’s talk or to protest at the venue where he will be speaking. “I originally thought I would like to protest, but over safety concerns, I will be staying home,” she said.
Other students, including 20-year-old Henry Nguyen — a junior studying bioengineering and born, as he said, in Panama City to parents who immigrated from Vietnam — plan to protest in a “virtual assembly” during Spencer’s engagement. Nguyen described the online platform — #TogetherUF — as “a safe way to stay engaged without being actively there.”
Meanwhile, the Facebook page for Spencer’s institute describes him as “The man UF President Fuchs and Little Marco Rubio DON’T want you to hear!”
[Photos via Susan Washington]