The same day the largest white nationalist protest in years erupted in violence in Virginia, the University of Florida announced that the man behind the march wants to speak on campus, and the school might let him.
Richard Spencer, the self-proclaimed leader of the alt-right who explicitly calls for an all-white “ethnostate,” asked UF to allow him to speak on Sept. 12 through his organization, the National Policy Institute. In a public letter, UF president Kent Fuchs said no student group asked for or sponsored Spencer’s speaking engagement, but the university is still obligated to let him talk.
“While this speaker’s views do not align with our values as an institution, we must follow the law, upholding the First Amendment not to discriminate based on content and provide access to a public space,” Fuchs wrote.
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UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said no contract has been signed with NPI, so the event is still tentative.
While UF is no stranger to controversial speakers met with counter-protesters, a vocal segment of the UF community believes Spencer’s appearance crosses the line between allowing “differing opinions” — as Fuchs put it — and giving hate speech a platform.
Spencer’s “Unite the Right” protest in Charlottesville began Friday night with a tiki-torch-lit procession to the confederate monument near the University of Virginia campus, Spencer’s alma mater. On Saturday, counter protesters clashed with the swastika-sporting white nationalists, leading the governor to declare a state of emergency around 11 a.m., an hour before the rally was set to start.
Videos posted online show alt-right protesters beating counter-protesters with poles, fist-fights breaking out between groups and even a protester pulling a gun on counter-protesters, with little police interference. The violence culminated when a neo-Nazi rammed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring some two dozen others.
In hopes of avoiding similar violence, UF said it’s developing a security plan and working with other colleges across the country that have held similar events.
In April, Auburn University tried to block Spencer from appearing by citing safety concerns, but a court ruled in Spencer’s favor and forced the school to host the man who coined the term “alt-right” as a catch-all for a loosely organized right-wing group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
A Facebook event created in opposition to Spencer’s appearance has hundreds of attendees already, with volunteers planning carpooling and protest techniques. The Orlando-based political organizer behind the event, Mitch Emerson, said he heard on Saturday that UF was grappling with how to respond to Spencer’s request, so he decided to create the event to warn people about what might be coming. Hours later, UF released its statement.
Emerson said the “No Nazis at UF” group has already begun organizing bus rides to Gainesville from Tampa, Orlando and Miami for the counter-protest. He and the others behind the movement to block Spencer’s appearance say that free speech rights don’t cover “clear and present dangers.”
“If I were to host a rally of 500 people and I incited them to violence, I would be charged with a crime,” Emerson said. “It’s not about free speech. It’s about safety.”
Spencer also plans to appear at Texas A&M University the day before his possible UF appearance for a “White Lives Matter” rally.