The University of Florida on Friday cleared the way for white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on the Gainesville campus — but at a new date yet to be determined.
The move, announced Friday, came as the university faced a First Amendment lawsuit over a controversial event originally planned for Sept. 12 that could set up the small college town as the next potential free-speech showdown between racist groups and the protesters who show up to oppose them.
In a letter to Gainesville-based lawyer Gary Edinger, whose client, event organizer Cameron Padgett, requested a meeting space on campus, the university said that “it was never the intention” to permanently bar Spencer, an “alt-right” leader who planned the gathering of white nationalist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia. The event last month turned violent, leaving dozens injured and counterprotester Heather Heyer dead after one racist plowed his car into a crowd.
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UF said its initial decision to not rent speaking space to Spencer and his National Policy Institute, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designated a hate group, was based on security concerns and was “prudent and constitutional.”
However, university general counsel Amy Hass wrote, that denial was a direct response to the violence of the “Unite the Right” rally at the University of Virginia. President Kent Fuchs decided that the “highly charged atmosphere following Charlottesville created a serious risk of violence and disruption if the speech took place on university grounds in early September.”
If Spencer asked to speak on a different day, Hass suggested, things might be different. In a separate letter also sent to students on Friday, Fuchs also acknowledged that permanently banning Spencer would be unconstitutional.
Spencer has yet to request a separate speaking date, but if he does, the university said in a statement, “We will use the same careful deliberation and consideration of safety and security factors that we did previously and make that decision accordingly in order to meet our legal obligations.”
The letters amounted to UF basically acquiescing to a formal demand issued Thursday by Edinger, where he said his client would be open to choosing a new date to rent space, or a different venue on campus for an anticipated audience of about 400 people.
Edinger said Friday afternoon that his Padgett has accepted UF’s offer “in principle,” but he’s still prepared to take the university to court if negotiations break down. Padgett, a 23-year-old Georgia State University finance student, has planned several events on university campuses across the country on Spencer’s behalf.
If he does sue the school, legal experts say the outcome of the case could have implications for the several other universities that have turned Spencer down on similar security concerns, including Penn State University, Texas A&M and Michigan State University. The last school to try to deny Spencer speaking space on campus was Auburn University. The school was ultimately forced to rent the venue to Spencer after a judge sided with Spencer and Padgett on First Amendment grounds.
While hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, UF’s challenge on the basis of student safety complicates an otherwise straightforward case, said Professor Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at UF.
Normally, all it would take for Spencer to lose his First Amendment protection is to use words that directly incite violence. UF’s lawyers could argue, Calvert said, that Spencer’s speech in Virginia led to violence, a claim that the “alt-right” community vehemently denies.
“A lot will hinge on how much a judge considers Charlottesville as a legitimate reason to predict Richard Spencer brings with him a reasonable likelihood of imminent violence,” he said. “You’re using the past to predict the future.”
The more than 2,000 expected counterprotesters who planned to appear on campus on Sept 12 also play a role. The university is obliged to protect a speaker from the crowd to preserve his or her free speech right and prevent what is known as a “heckler’s veto.” Edinger name-checked this principle in his formal demand, where he said the university’s “principal obligation in this regard is to ensure order so that the speech may go forward.”
UF might argue that it is unable to protect Spencer, Calvert said, or to protect the crowd of young students on their campus from violence that may break out.
“I think it’s a very close call,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had an issue come up like this in recent times.”