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Q&A: Eight things to know about Richard Spencer and his visit to UF

By Claire McNeill
The view from the balcony at the University of Florida's Phillips Center, where white nationalist Richard Spencer will speak on Thursday. Spencer is distributing about 700 tickets. Protesters and Spencer supporters are expected to attend. [University of Florida]

As Richard Spencerís controversial speech approaches, the University of Florida has been making extensive preparations and reassuring its students. Here, we answer some of the questions swirling around his visit on Thursday.

Who is Richard Spencer?

Spencer is a white nationalist whose spotlight has burned brighter this year as issues around race and free speech have heated up in national politics. He advocates for a white "ethno-state" in North America achieved through "peaceful ethnic cleansing" and has said people are not created equal. He calls himself an "identitarian." The Southern Poverty Law Center calls him a racist in khakis.

Spencer, 39, organized the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville that devolved into violent brawls between white supremacists and protesters, one of whom died. With his group, the National Policy Institute, he has targeted large public universities for his speeches, as theyíre bound by the First Amendment and come with built-in audiences, whether to listen or protest.

Heís also known for his role in the internet-savvy, fringe political movement known as the alt-right.

What will he be talking about at UF?

Heíll be talking about his favorite topic: the virtues of white identity in a multiracial world. He also plans to touch on the events of Charlottesville, including the arrest of a supporter of his whom he likens to a political prisoner.

Spencer plans to speak for 30 to 45 minutes, then open up the floor for audience questions and comments. Heíll be joined by Mike Enoch, a far-right shock-jock known for his anti-Semitic rhetoric.

What time is the event? Where is it? How can I get tickets?

Spencer will talk on Thursday at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts at 3201 Hull Road. Thatís on the far western edge of UFís campus. Doors open at 1:30 p.m. The event itself is slated for 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Anyone wishing to attend should go to the Phillips Center on Thursday for first-come, first-served tickets, according to Spencerís group is handling the distribution. Attendees will have to pass through security checkpoints beginning about 1:15 p.m., the website said. About 700 tickets are available.

UFís president is encouraging people not to attend. What can I do instead?

Students and local activists, as well as groups from around the state and beyond, will be gathering near the Phillips Center to protest Spencerís rhetoric, as well as administrators who they criticize as "complicit" for enabling his speech.

UF student leaders will be airing a virtual assembly at the same time as Spencerís speech, featuring videos and performances "to open up dialogue about race relations, cooperation, diversity, and much more." That will be open to students, faculty and staff.

The student leadersí #TogetherUF campaign will also be holding a fundraiser via Facebook to support the UF Student Affairs crisis fund for students in need, whether itís hurricane relief or students who need medical care.

What is the university doing for security? For safety?

UF, as well as law enforcement agencies in Gainesville and beyond, have spent weeks preparing for Spencerís event. The school plans to spend more than $500,000 on security. That includes road closures, heightened dorm security and checkpoints for attendees. The school has also banned a long list of items within a large perimeter of the Phillips Center, which can be viewed here. It includes torches, water bottles and masks.

Already, many law enforcement officers are gathering at the Phillips Center. And Gov. Rick Scott has declared a preemptive state of emergency, which makes it easier for law enforcement agencies to work together without bureaucratic hurdles. It also allows for increased spending and the implementation of a curfew, if needed.

The university as a whole is open, and classes are still on, though some professors are canceling their classes. Some buildings will require student identification to enter, and some facilities (like an art museum and some recreation facilities) will be closed altogether. Residence halls will require swipe access.

Walk-in counseling appointments will be available for students.

Why is Spencer being allowed to talk at all? Who invited him?

No one invited Spencer. UF rents campus space to third parties like Spencerís group, and cannot discriminate based on platform. Spencer first asked to rent the space for a Sept. 12 speech, but UF denied his request, citing the potential for violence after Charlottesville, including "imminent threats" targeting the school and city.

Spencer hired an attorney, who began drafting a federal lawsuit. UF said the rejection was never meant to be a permanent ban, that the university must allow free speech, and that he could speak at a later date. That became Oct. 19, allowing for more preparation.

Ultimately, the First Amendment protects hate speech, no matter how offensive. Threats of violence are not protected.

How much did Spencer pay? Why not more?

Spencerís group has paid $10,564 to rent the center and for security inside of it. Free speech laws protect speakers, no matter how controversial, and donít allow institutions to shift security costs related to protesters or other onlookers outside the venue onto speakers.

What is UFís stance on this whole thing?

UF President Kent Fuchs has loudly denounced Spencerís rhetoric since his initial application was filed. You can read more about the universityís response, as well as the history of controversial speaker on campus, here.

Compiled by Claire McNeill, Times Staff Writer