With Richard Spencer’s controversial visit to the University of Florida quickly approaching, some UF and Gainesville police officers boarded a plane bound for Berkeley.
They flew west to gather lessons during the so-called "Free Speech Week" last month at the University of California, Berkeley, hosted by the far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.
The last few months have been filled with plenty of clues on how UF should approach the next few days. When, if at all, should police intervene? How much security is too much? Where is the balance between free speech and safety?
Tensions were running high on the Berkeley campus, once a center of the free speech movement in the 1960s, now regarded as a stronghold of left-wing activism. Protests had ignited yet again, refueling a fierce free speech debate that had been churning all year.
Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart editor, planned the rally in response to what he said was Berkeley’s pattern of shutting down conservative speech.
He had tried to speak at Berkeley in February, but officials canceled his appearance as violent demonstrations shook the campus. Then, in April, an appearance by conservative commentator Ann Coulter was abruptly called off. Protests broke out.
For Yiannopoulos’ "Free Speech Week," the school estimated $1 million in security costs.
Coulter was scheduled to come. So was Steve Bannon, the former advisor to President Trump. But confusion was mounting: Would the speakers show? Would the event go on?
In a swirl of last-minute chaos, the event fizzled. Organizers had failed to confirm their speaker lineup and school venues. Yiannopoulos appeared for just 15 minutes, while supporters and opponents screamed at each other. Then he vanished into a car.
A school spokesman called it "probably the most expensive photo op in the university’s history."
No matter the outcome, Berkeley had been caught in the same bind as UF, where white nationalist Richard Spencer is scheduled to speak on Thursday. Berkeley officials, like those at UF, had to grapple with questions of student safety and potential violence while also honoring free speech laws. They had to reassure students of their values, while maintaining a safe legal standing.
Universities caught in the free speech wars have faced attacks on all sides, from right-wing speakers who accuse them of shutting down speech, and from students who say officials haven’t done enough to ensure their safety. Parents and alumni have written angry letters. Protesters have rocked campuses. And costs have piled up.
UF officials don’t want Spencer to come at all. Saddled with his presence, they’ve planned for months, talking with officials at other schools who’ve had to deal with the same unwelcome guests.
Here’s how Spencer’s visits have played out at other universities.
The University of Virginia and Charlottesville, Va.
Spencer’s appearance in Florida comes two months after his planned "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville devolved into chaotic scenes of racism and violence.
The rally was planned for a city park. The University of Virginia prepared a slate of activities, a day devoted to "mutual respect and inclusion." There would be a talk from the university provost about "intolerance of intolerance." The school would host a potluck, a training session about undocumented immigrants.
The night before the rally, hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists amassed for a surprise march across the University of Virginia campus one night, chanting "Blood and soil" and "Jew will not replace us." They brawled with two dozen protesters who had surrounded a campus statue of university founder Thomas Jefferson, including a library employee who suffered a stroke potentially related to the melee.
Eventually, police stepped in, but students later criticized officials for what they called a lackluster response. University president Teresa Sullivan released a statement denouncing the march, but some students and academics lambasted her for not criticizing the ideology that fueled it.
Early the next morning, attendees of Spencer’s rally gathered. Some had clubs. Others carried long guns and Confederate flags. Counterprotesters came wielding sticks and shields. A militia appeared. Screaming broke out, and little skirmishes began. Then bigger brawls exploded, while police appeared to stand by.
As the violence escalated, with tear gas and flares blazing, the university called off all of its programming, concerned about safety.
Before noon, at the request of Virginia State Police, Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, authorizing heavier law enforcement actions "to restore public safety and order."
Finally, law enforcement officials began breaking up the violent crowds.
A few hours later, a man drove a car into a crowd, injuring scores of protesters and killing a woman.
Officials had been planning for the rally for weeks. Yet police faced heavy criticism from Spencer’s camp and his detractors alike, who all said that police should have acted more decisively instead of letting tensions erupt into open violence.
The university faced an onslaught of criticism, too.
Later on Saturday, Sullivan released a statement condemning the beliefs of the rally-goers who flocked to Charlottesville. Still, many students and academics were unsatisfied with her response, which they said was tepid.
The Chronicle of Higher Education asked the university why torches were allowed when "open flames" were banned on UVa’s campus. The university replied via email and said the school is working on "immediate steps and improvements" and will keep enacting "additional recommendations that will enhance the overall safety of its living and learning environment."
Another report from the Chronicle quoted UVa professors and students who said it was "common knowledge" that Spencer’s group would be marching that night, from social media posts and accounts from people who saw white nationalists near campus. Yet the police presence was slim as the torch-bearers wound through campus, and Sullivan said she did not learn about the march until just a few hours before it was to begin.
By 10:15 p.m., associate professor Walter Heinecke told the Chronicle, he entered the circle of students because police were not intervening. He watched rally-goers throw torches at students and bombard them with pepper spray. He called 911, begging for help, barely able to hear the operator over all of the screaming.
Like UF, Auburn officials initially denied Spencer’s request to speak on campus, citing concerns of violence. Spencer went to court, and a judge sided with him on First Amendment grounds — affirming the analysis of legal experts, losing Auburn $30,000 in legal fees, and sending a clear warning to other universities who may wish to deny him a venue.
Spencer eventually did speak at Auburn in April. Students put on a concert, surrounded by police barricades, to counter his message. Outside the hall, protests remained largely peaceful, and in a crowd of hundreds, three people were arrested. Inside, the crowd skewed older than traditional college-age. As Spencer spoke about whiteness, some people shouted out, heckling him to get to his point. His supporters chanted back, "Let him speak."
By the end of his speech, in which Spencer called diversity "a way of bringing to an end a nation and a culture" defined by white people, the room had nearly emptied. When the last Spencer supporters left, a mob of student protesters chased them off campus.
UF estimates that security will cost more than $500,000. It’s not clear how much that figure may shift. Berkeley’s "Free Speech Week" had estimated costs of $1 million, and still cost $800,000 even as it fizzled.
Gov. Rick Scott’s declaration of a state of emergency — three days before the event — gives additional powers to law enforcement agencies from different jurisdictions to work together quickly, without red tape. It authorizes increased spending and the creation of curfews.
UF has also banned a long list of items, including weapons and torches like those carried in Charlottesville.
Notably, the school is forbidding masks and bandannas, often worn by anti-fascist protesters to cover their faces. Police will try to maintain some distance between protesters and supporters.
Still, much remains unknown. Plenty of tickets remain to Spencer’s speech. Students have been encouraged to stay away. How many protesters or supporters will show is uncertain.
"There’s a possibility of real violence," UF President Kent Fuchs told the Gainesville Sun. "We are prepared for a Charlottesville but hope it will not be that."
Information from the New York Times, CNN, the Mercury News, the Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education was used in this report. Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected]