GAINESVILLE, Fla. - The University of Florida is refusing to allow white nationalist leader Richard Spencer to speak on campus next month, citing “serious concerns” about safety in the aftermath of a deadly weekend clash in Charlottesville, Va.
In a message to staff Wednesday morning, university President Kent Fuchs said the decision to deny the National Policy Institute's request to rent space on campus came “after assessing potential risks” with campus, state, local and federal law enforcement officials.
Continued calls “online and in social medial for similar violence in Gainesville such as those decreeing: `The Next Battlefield is Florida' ” also played a role in the decision, Fuchs said.
But Cameron Padgett, a Georgia resident coordinating the event with Spencer, told The News Service of Florida they are working with attorneys and plan to file a lawsuit challenging Fuchs' decision.
Spencer is a leader in the “alt-right” movement, blamed for a deadly outburst following a “Unite the Right” rally Saturday in Charlottesville. One person died when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, and two Virginia state troopers also died in a helicopter crash while monitoring the situation.
“I find the racist rhetoric of Richard Spencer and white nationalism repugnant and counter to everything the university and this nation stands for,” Fuchs wrote. “That said, the University of Florida remains unwaveringly dedicated to free speech and the spirit of public discourse. However, the First Amendment does not require a public institution to risk imminent violence to students and others. The likelihood of violence and potential injury --- not the words or ideas --- has caused us to take this action.”
Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday he was coordinating with Florida National Guard about the potential event, which was proposed to take place on Sept. 12.
But Padgett said if there is any chance of “mob violence,” it’s due to people protesting the event.
“There are already 4,000 people, the president announced, that are threatening to come there that want to shut it down,” Padgett said. “That’s not coming from us. It’s just me, Richard, and that’s about it. We haven’t incited any violence.”
Padgett said the purpose of speaking on the campus is to discuss their political beliefs and to explain the alt-right.
The university's ability to restrict controversial speakers like Spencer is limited, even in the aftermath of the Charlottesville events, according to First Amendment lawyers. Officials can't make spaces available to the public off-limits simply based on the content of a speaker's views.
And the university's decision to block Spencer from speaking could heighten tensions, First Amendment lawyer Tom Julin told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Wednesday morning.
“Certainly, the university is going to be targeted by whoever they disappointed, so it's a troubling decision that they're making, to me,” Julin said. “I think that is the sort of decision that the white supremacists will use to their advantage to try to criticize the university from stopping them from speaking.”
In his message announcing the decision Wednesday, Fuchs noted that Texas A&M University, where Spencer spoke in December, also canceled an event with the white nationalist leader that was scheduled to take place the day before the Gainesville appearance. Texas university officials also cited safety issues, Fuchs said.
An inability by the University of Florida and the community to manage a potential conflict is something officials can take into consideration when weighing the First Amendment rights of potential speakers, Julin said.
“But I would not be surprised to see that decision challenged. There obviously was a very serious incident in Charlottesville, but then to conclude from that that the particular awful controversial view is not going to be allowed to speak in the future is a very difficult position to sustain,” he said. “But these are unusual times, and we have an unusual president (Donald Trump) and the concerns about violence are legitimate. It will be unfortunate if this does exacerbate the tensions that already exist.”
But the decision by Fuchs drew quick praise from state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.
“Thank you @UF for doing what is right for the safety of faculty, staff + students,” Smith tweeted.
--- Staff writer Jim Turner contributed to this report.
News Service of Florida