Tensions are rising in the small college town of Gainesville as law enforcement, faculty and students alike prepare for Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and self-described leader of the so-called “alt-right,” to speak at the University of Florida.
Spencer’s initial request to speak at the school was denied, but the university relented under the threat of legal action and allowed Spencer to rent the Phillips Center from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. on Thursday. Auburn University, the last school to try to deny Spencer over security concerns, ended up being forced to host Spencer and pay him $30,000.
Protesters from around the state, an overwhelming amount of them ready to speak against Spencer’s racist rhetoric, have planned rallies throughout the day Thursday. Classes are officially still in session, although many departments have canceled lectures and exams.
The university and the state have planned a large-scale law enforcement response to the thousands of expected protesters, who many worry could turn violent and make Gainesville the next Charlottesville.
Some of the main questions that have come up are:
Why did Spencer pick UF?
Spencer said he was just looking for a high-profile school when he chose UF, the state’s preeminent and largest public university.
Cameron Padgett, a 29-year-old Georgia State University graduate student who helps book Spencer’s appearances, said he chose UF because it has a large population of white students he feels would be interested in Spencer’s message. He also said he had some friends who attend the journalism school and agree with Spencer’s ideas.
Angus Johnston, a professor at the City University of New York who researches student activism, said schools like UF are targeted by Spencer and his peers because of their open rental policy and their cultural role as bastions of liberalism.
Spencer was not invited by any student group. His booker, Padgett, simply rented the space under the name of Spencer’s organization — the National Policy Institute. which has been designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group.
Allowing outside organizations to rent space is usually seen as a win-win, a revenue boost for the school and a benefit to the relationship with the host city. But the uptick in controversial campus speakers has some schools rethinking the policy.
Texas A&M, the setting for Spencer’s first high-profile appearance, changed its policy and no longer allows uninvited speakers. At Florida State University, administrators made an emergency policy change last month that, among other things, shifted over-the-top security costs for speakers to the student groups that invited them.
Johnston said this falls right in line with Spencer’s goals: to gain notoriety and cause chaos at colleges.
“He is weaponizing the First Amendment and campus policies to cause harm to these universities,” Johnston said. “It’s a shame. Because of a policy that’s a good thing for everyone colleges are being forced to rethink these policies for their own protection.”
These events erode trust in the public for universities and free speech, he said. And for backers of these controversial speakers, like the rich, conservative Mercer family that backs Breitbart news and Milo Yiannopoulos or the mystery donors behind Spencer’s NPI — “You’d have to torture me to get that information,” Spencer said — the events are a good return on investment. For a little over $10,000 a pop, these events steal headlines for days, cost the public hundreds of thousands of dollars and propel the white nationalist cause further into the mainstream.
“It’s clearly a good idea,” Spencer said. “Even getting punched was a good — though painful — way of getting my message across.”
Who’s paying the bill?
In a press release, UF ballparked the security cost for Spencer’s event at $500,000. That number is merely an estimate, and it doesn’t fall entirely on UF’s shoulders.
Most of the law enforcement agencies working with the university are spending their own money with hopes of reimbursement from the state afterward.
“At this point,” Gainesville Police Department spokesman Ben Tobias said, “GPD is going to have to absorb our costs as an unplanned expenditure.”
On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Alachua County to make mobilizing law enforcement and paying for security easier across agencies. This declaration also allows for leaders to enforce curfews and makes the Florida Department of Law Enforcement the lead agency for crisis management.
The seven-page order also makes it easier for UF to be reimbursed for security costs.
Those costs fall on the school and the state because of a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that the government cannot charge a speaker for the costs of potentially hostile onlookers or protesters. The doctrine, known as the “heckler’s veto,” means the government (in this case, UF the public school) must pick up the tab to protect free speech.
UF can’t charge Spencer more for security than any other speaker, otherwise that would be seen as a content-based restriction on his speech, said Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment expert at the Brechner Center.
“You can’t have a permitting system that allows people to pull numbers out of thin air,” LoMonte said. “It’s both a matter of if there’s a structure in place and that structure is applied in a faithful way.”
The “heckler’s veto” is why the University of California, Berkeley, ended up paying nearly a million dollars in security fees when provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos held his “Free Speech Week,” which ultimately fizzled into a 15-minute appearance by Yiannopoulos and not the evening of speeches by conservative stars like Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon.
Which items are banned from the protests?
As preparation for what look to be large protests, the UF Police Department released a list of prohibited items ahead of Spencer’s event.
Some items are obvious — no weapons, torches or baseball bats — but others are less so — backpacks, water balloons and umbrellas.
Julian Waterson, a representative with Gainesville’s anti-fascist chapter, said his organization finds the prohibited items list “extremely oppressive,” particularly the ban on water bottles.
“Often what happens in these protests is police surround the group and don’t let people in or out for hours,” he said. “Where are people supposed to get water? That’s not looking after the safety of the protesters.”
Another hotly contested item on the banned list: masks.
The desire for masks during protests, although traditionally the domain of Ku Klux Klan members, has spread to the far left. Anti-fascist protesters are known for wearing masks or bandanas over their faces. Their reasoning is a mix of practicality (they’re useful if teargas is sprayed), safety (antifa activists have been identified online or attacked) and intimidation.
Waterson said other anti-fascist activists have been targets of harassment and violence or even fired when their identity is leaked, a process known as doxxing.
LoMonte said courts ruled in favor of mask-bans in a high-profile case involving the Klan because the masks were “not expressive and solely for the purpose of concealing your identity.”
Days after the banned-items list went online, civil rights legal groups Partnership for Civil Justice Fund and Florida Legal Services sent a letter to UFPD requesting clarification on how and where the ban would be enforced. The next day, UF publicized a “prohibited items” area covering a broad swatch of land around the area Spencer will speak, but it did not address how police officers would respond if a protester had a banned item.
“Will there be warrantless, suspicionless searches? Are they going to disallow access? Confiscate the item? Will there be criminal penalties?” PCJF’s Mara Verheyden-Hilliard said. “The changes they are making still raise serious concerns.”
UFPD directed a reporter to university spokeswoman Janine Sikes, who would not address how officers intend to enforce the banned items list.
“Law enforcement will take appropriate measures to protect the safety and security of the students,” she said.
As of Tuesday, the organization has not heard back from the university.
How big will the protests be?
It isn’t clear how many protesters will show up on Thursday, but both sides point their finger at the other as a potential instigator for violence.
The main protest group for left-wing activists, “No Nazis at UF,” estimates thousands of people will show up, including two buses from Orlando.
As for the so-called “alt-right” crowd, no one can guess how many people will show up. Spencer said he expects “a lot of people,” but Mitch Emerson, an Orlando organizer for UF’s protest who has led several rallies against white supremacists, said not to expect a big crowd.
Emerson said the same crowd tends to show up at every event.
“Even if the Richard Spencer group has a surprisingly high turnout we’ll still outnumber them ten to one,” Emerson said.
Security is the top concern for everyone involved in Spencer’s event. UF president Kent Fuchs told the Gainesville Sun he sees a possibility of “real violence” in the city.
“We are prepared for a Charlottesville, but hope it will not be that,” he said.
Waterson, with the anti-fascist Gainesville group, said the large “No Nazis at UF” protest coalition is diverse and includes anti-fascists, labor activists, socialists, anarchists, African- and Indian-heritage groups, human-rights activists and faith groups.
“We’re not mobilizing to get into conflict with the national guard or the police. We absolutely want to avoid that,” he said.
However, he added, fascism attracts violence.
“If violence breaks out, that’s really on Richard Spencer and we will defend ourselves,” he said.
Spencer stressed that he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt at any of his events, although he said “there is clearly a chance for violence.”
He blames any and all violence on antifa, even the death of Heather Heyer, the young leftist activist who died when James Alex Fields Jr., who was seen in photos marching with the “alt-right” crowd, rammed his car into a crowd at the Charlottesville protest.
Spencer, who helped lead the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, said Fields rammed his car into the crowd because he was afraid of antifa protestors surrounding him. He said Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, died from a heart attack, not from the car ramming.
“She was not the woman hit by the car,” he said, contradicting what police have said. “It was a very ambiguous situation.”
Police have accused Fields of killing Heyer and wounding 19 others. He faces 10 charges in total.