The hostile audience drowned out white nationalist Richard Spencer with anti-Nazi chants. They booed him off the stage under the watchful eye of police officers in riot gear.
In other words, Spencer sees his speech Thursday at the University of Florida as a smashing success.
“I’m very happy with what happened in the sense of the (public relations) victory,” he told The Associated Press on Friday. “But at the same time, it’s a little frustrating and a little sad that I wasn’t able to talk to people.”
Once an obscure figure in a fringe movement, Spencer has become a household name thanks in part to his infamous “Hail Trump!” toast, a videotaped punch to his head and the bloodshed at a Virginia rally where he was a headliner.
But his notoriety, amplified by social media and mainstream news coverage, far exceeds his modest following of tiki torch-bearing racists and anti-Semites.
Protesters vastly outnumbered Spencer’s supporters at the University of Florida on Thursday, his first campus appearance since the deadly clash at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. A woman was struck and killed by a car that plowed into a crowd of counter protesters after authorities broke up the “Unite the Right” rally.
In Florida, police flooded Gainesville after the governor declared a state of emergency ahead of Spencer’s event.
Facing a massive backlash after the Charlottesville violence, Spencer and other leading figures in the “alt-right” movement have portrayed themselves as champions of free speech and victims of political correctness. Over the past six months, Spencer’s supporters have sued three universities for refusing to let him speak there. A lawyer aligned with Spencer has threatened to sue others.
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said campus speeches are a “tried-and-true tactic to get attention” for Spencer and other far-right figures.
“He’s choosing the places that will elicit a visceral reaction, perhaps some sort of legal battle. And he embraces that because he knows it’s going to underscore his ideology,” Segal said.
Spencer popularized the term “alt-right” to describe a movement that’s a loosely connected mix of racism, white nationalism and anti-immigration views. He has advocated for an “ethno-state” that would be a “safe space” for white people.\
Last November, after Donald Trump’s election, Spencer hosted a conference in Washington that ended with audience members mimicking Nazi salutes after Spencer shouted, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
In January, Spencer was in Washington for Trump’s inauguration when a masked man punched him in the head during a videotaped interview, footage that quickly spread on the internet.
Buoyed by a wave of publicity, Spencer announced plans for a college tour earlier this year. Spencer said he thought the tour would be “easy” and he could simply “call people up and I would come and speak to students.”
“There are roadblocks at every place along the way,” he said Thursday.
In April, Auburn University tried to cancel his speech, but a federal judge ruled in Spencer’s favor after a lawyer sued the school on behalf of Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student who booked a room for Spencer.
More recently, Padgett and another surrogate tried to book events for Spencer at Ohio State University, Michigan State University, Penn State University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Cincinnati and Louisiana State University. So far, only the University of Florida and the University of Cincinnati agreed to let him speak.
LSU President F. King Alexander cited the Charlottesville violence in explaining why Spencer wasn’t welcome.
“LSU is not changing policies but rather following the law, which allows us to protect our students from imminent threats of violence,” Alexander said in a statement over the summer.
Spencer’s allies recently sued Michigan State and Penn State in federal courts, accusing them of violating Spencer’s First Amendment rights.
Michigan-based attorney Kyle Bristow, who helped draft the lawsuits, said they don’t want to become “First Amendment martyrs” but feel unfairly targeted after Charlottesville. He pointed to the takedown of The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that has struggled to stay online since it mocked the woman killed in the car attack.
“Once Charlottesville happened, corporate America and the government began to crack down on the alt-right,” Bristow said. “The First Amendment isn’t changed because of one protest or one rally. Everybody has a right to exercise free speech.”