Saturday, November 18, 2017
Education

As UF maneuvers, white nationalists say they're coming to campus

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A few days ago, University of Florida president Kent Fuchs made a vow to students. UF would "vigorously" defend its decision to reject white nationalist Richard Spencer from speaking on campus.

On Friday, the school made clear the denial was just for Spencer's preferred date, Sept. 12.

He is welcome to try again.

"It was never the intention of the University to permanently bar Mr. Spencer from speaking at an appropriate time and location," a letter to Spencer's attorney read. Instead, UF officials said, it just wasn't the right time.

Spencer's representatives are deciding what comes next. They may go through the motions of applying for a new speech date. They may just flock to campus and hold a public demonstration on their own terms on Sept. 12. Either way, they were pleased on Friday.

"We view this as a promising and hopeful development," Gainesville attorney Gary Edinger wrote in an email.

 

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA

 

In Gainesville, UF grapples with the specter of its own brush with white nationalists (Aug. 14, 2017)

UF's move to deny white nationalist Richard Spencer a venue sets up a First Amendment court fight (Aug. 16, 2017)

Legal battle draws near as white nationalist sends ultimatum to UF (Sept. 1, 2017)

Last month the university rejected Spencer's application to rent space on campus, citing concerns about violence in the wake of Charlottesville, where white nationalists brawled with protestors and a woman was killed on Aug. 12. Fuchs emailed students about his decision, saying that though Spencer's rhetoric is "repugnant," the university ultimately made its decision based on "the likelihood of violence and potential injury — not the words or ideas."

Spencer, whose National Policy Institute advocates for a white "ethno-state," had successfully challenged Auburn University in April over a similar rejection. A federal judge said Spencer should be free to speak on First Amendment grounds.

So on Thursday, Edinger sent UF a letter on behalf of Spencer, warning that if the university did not let Spencer speak, they could expect to end up in federal court in a matter of days.

On Friday, UF responded with a concise letter, echoing concerns about violence but adding several key points that could help shield it from potential legal action.

Chief among those points was timing — an element UF had not underscored in previous statements.

The letter said that Fuchs decided that the "highly charged atmosphere" after Charlottesville posed serious risks "if the speech took place on University grounds in early September."

"It's a pretty artfully done email," said Peter Lake, an expert in higher education law at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. "They played on the time factor. It wasn't a good time right then, but it might be a good time later."

The U.S. Supreme Court allows institutions to make reasonable restrictions on free speech when it comes to time, place and manner. In this light, Spencer's denial could be interpreted as more of a postponement.

Emphasizing the time restriction helps weaken arguments that UF illegally discriminated against Spencer based on his viewpoint, Lake said. Canceling an event simply because of potential violence could have been challenged as a "heckler's veto" — suppressing speech in anticipation of a hostile audience.

Should Spencer make another request, UF said it will try to accommodate him as it would any other speaker, with considerations for safety and security.

In other words, it's still no guarantee, but the door is open.

If Spencer and company take a different path and hold a public demonstration, Lake said, they could potentially be trespassed from campus for causing a disruption.

"They may want to go the civil disobedience route," Lake said. "Then they can say, 'We were martyred to the UF system,' and UF will have to defend its reasonable rules."

Event organizer Cameron Padgett had yet to speak with his attorney Friday afternoon when he vowed that the event would go on, potentially as a demonstration.

"We're going to show up Sept. 12 regardless, a million percent," Padgett said. "We're not going to disrupt the normal activities of the school, but the protesters might ... they would need to remove them, not us."

Organizers of a planned "No Nazis at UF" protest for Sept. 12 were keeping tabs on the developments on Friday. More than 2,200 people have said they will attend.

Spencer is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old, a kind of professional racist in khakis." In growing his following, he has focused heavily on college campuses.

Other universities have turned Spencer away in recent weeks, including the University of North Carolina and Penn State University, largely for fear of violence.

Spencer's was the first application UF officials can remember denying. Though the decision to reject him came after sustained public outcry, the university said the events in Charlottesville, and the potential for similar chaos at UF, were the determining factor.

In UF's letter, by interim vice president and general counsel Amy M. Hass, the university acknowledged the value of the free exchange of ideas but drew a line in the sand.

When university officials believe an event poses a risk to students, or interferes with its educational mission, Hass wrote, "we have the right and responsibility to take appropriate steps to mitigate that risk."

Contact Claire McNeill at (727) 893-8321 or cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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