UF, law enforcement ready for white nationalist speech

Students on edge as controversial speaker's appearance looms

By Vic Micolucci - Reporter, anchor , Jake Stofan - Tallahassee corespondent , Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - The commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said Tuesday authorities are prepared to handle people who commit or encourage violence when a white-nationalist leader speaks Thursday at the University of Florida.

Barricades were already in place and an increased law enforcement presence was noticeable Tuesday outside the Phillips Center, where alt-right leader Richard Spencer is scheduled to speak.

His looming appearance has many students on edge.

Jewish sophomore Jack Gare said he will be avoiding campus Thursday for his own safety but that he doesn't take Spencer's vocal anti-Semitic views to heart.

“It doesn't mean anything to me,” Gare said. “I ignore it, basically, and I stick to my faith. I just block it out.”

Muslim American student Najal Faddoul said UF has embraced her background.

“For a woman who wears the headscarf, I have gone to so many different places where I have gotten so many bigoted, hateful comments, but I have never felt that here,” she said. “We need to stick together. We need to help one another. We cannot let hatred and racism flourish.”

How students will react to the controversial speaker is a concern.

A Brookings Institute study found a bare majority of 51 percent of college students think it’s OK to shout and drown out speech they find offensive and one out of five students agreed violence was OK to use against offensive speakers.

The Brookings study also found that six out of 10 students believe event organizers are legally required to provide opposing viewpoints. No such law exists.

Boycott encouraged

UF President Kent Fuchs, who initially balked at allowing Spencer, has openly called for students, faculty and staff to stay away from the event and not give “Spencer and his followers the spotlight they are seeking.”

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a UF graduate, echoed that sentiment Tuesday, encouraging students to boycott the event. 

The university initially rejected Spencer's request to speak on campus but later agreed to accommodate Spencer after his National Policy Institute threatened to sue the school.

Professor Clay Calvert, a free speech expert at UF, said that because it’s a public university, leaders can't deny Spencer’s demand to speak but that if his words incite a riot or call for violence, they can cut him off.

“If he crosses that line, then the university can go ahead and shut him down,” Calvert said.

Emergency declared

At the request of Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell, Gov. Rick Scott issued an executive order Monday declaring a state of emergency in Alachua County, including putting the Florida National Guard on standby for Spencer's appearance. Cabinet members backed Scott's decision Tuesday.

“I believe in the First Amendment rights that people have. I do expect people to be safe. I don't condone any violence,” Scott said Tuesday. “I'm going to continue to work with law enforcement to make sure all Floridians are safe.”

More animated, Bondi said such precautions are needed for Spencer and his National Policy Institute.

“This guy is out there espousing violence and hatred and anger,” Bondi said. “If we know that he is going to be there doing that, it is our duty as a state, and I commend the governor for having the resources available on the front end before something happens.”

Spencer was one of the key organizers of an August “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned deadly when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters. Heather Heyer, 31, was killed, and dozens were injured.

Scott's order establishes a “cooperative and coordinated security plan” among state and local law-enforcement agencies to ensure that they are “sufficiently prepared to deal with any security and safety issues related to the speaking engagement,” which is slated for the university's Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

Law enforcement ready

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen said Tuesday, after appearing before the Cabinet, he intends be in Gainesville.

“Those who show up to exercise their constitutional rights under the First Amendment, they will have no issues,” Swearingen said. “Those who show up to engage in or encourage violence, they are going to have problems. We will be prepared to deal with those folks.”

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, also a University of Florida graduate, praised Fuchs' efforts.

“I'm very pleased that he (Fuchs), the sheriff, the governor, and now a number of law enforcement agencies, will be coming together to make sure the right to free speech is protected but so are the community members who are put at risk by out-of-state troublemakers,” Putnam said.

Speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting this morning, Bondi said she was praying “nothing happens” and urged students not to go to the event, while saying “there is no place for espousing these horrible, horrible views.”

“Law enforcement is going to be well-prepared,” Bondi said. “There is just no place right now for this, but you know with free speech, if he's going to get up there and do it, then he's going to do it. But we are going to make sure that our students and our citizens are protected.”

Counter-protesters blamed

While the institute's cost to rent the facility is $15,000, the university has already said it expects to spend $500,000 on security for the event. 

Spencer supporters point the finger at counter-protesters, who've pledged to show up en masse on Thursday, as the reason for the precautions.

Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student who helped organize Spencer's speech in Gainesville, posted a video on Twitter Monday, with an update about how to get tickets for the event.

The Phillips Center was originally supposed to distribute the tickets for the speech, Padgett said.

But organizers quashed that after learning tickets could have been turned in for free drinks, or even money, Padgett said in the video.

“We're not even there yet, in Gainesville, at all and they're already enacting a state of emergency based on protesters already there,” Padgett said. “What's the state of emergency being enacted on? It's the protesters that are there at the event, or at the venue right now. So we're there to peacefully show up and speak, you know, words only, and if you want to debate and engage in a conversation, then I welcome everybody to be there. I think it will be a good event. I have full faith in the police to do whatever they need to do to make sure that the speech is delivered properly and safely.” 

A Spencer staffer told News4Jax that he would not be commenting Tuesday but that he will speak with us Thursday before the event. 

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