GAINESVILLE — Wednesday evening, hazy rumors of an impending Neo-Nazi march reached some wary protesters. A few quickly rallied to denounce the marchers in downtown Gainesville, only to find plazas empty but for police.
The march that never was served as another reminder of the fear and tension in this college town under siege.
All day, clusters of officers walked the University of Florida campus. Between classes, students debated their last-minute plans: Stay away? Join the action?
On the western edge of campus, orange barricades lined parking lots near the performing arts center where white nationalist Richard Spencer will make his first college speech since the bloodshed of Charlottesville.
UF President W. Kent Fuchs, storm-weary but spirited, spent Wednesday in his spacious Tigert Hall office with his staff, making final preparations. He sat down with the Tampa Bay Times to talk about the burdens and balances of free speech and student safety, the ripple effects of Charlottesville, and his worries.
This interview has been condensed.
You’re telling students to stay away. Why?
I feel like this individual — I hate saying his name — is co-opting, hijacking our platform.
Students, many of them, don’t understand why I’ve been telling them to shun him. They think I become complicit, or that they’re complicit, if they’re not loudly speaking up against his message. I just believe — I think most extremists are this way — attention and confrontation is the oxygen on which they thrive.
What advice have you solicited as Spencer’s visit nears?
We’ve learned a whole lot from other universities, from Berkeley, from the University of Virginia.
No. 1 is to keep followers of Mr. Spencer away from those that are protesting him — physically separated, with barriers, and with police officers — not just right before and after the event, but even when they go out to their cars. Most of the incidents of violence that we have seen elsewhere have been as the crowds have begun to disperse.
And No. 2 is to bring in a very visible, hopefully overwhelming show of law enforcement.
We’ve balanced that by deciding not to bring on campus the National Guard, who don’t have the same level of experience of dealing with college students as do campus police.
How much of a disruption has Spencer’s presence been?
It really is on the heels of Hurricane Irma. We lost four days of classes with Hurricane Irma, and rapidly after that, we’re dealing with this speaker.
It’s been incredibly disruptive. Our team is exhausted. It’s also really exhausting for the community. There was a lot of emotion expended around seeing Hurricane Irma for more than a week come towards us, and affect many families around the state, and now for many weeks the anticipation of this fellow coming.
Do you have any sense of how serious things may be?
I’m really, really worried. I really am concerned about the unknown, about these extreme events that could occur in spite of all of our incredible preparation.
It really was Charlottesville that changed everything. Without that occurring, we would not have the law enforcement here. It was those images of assault weapons and the clubs and the death with the car. It changed all our our perspectives. So I worry about all of our campus, and their physical and mental well-being.
And then I do worry about the image of our institution. We don’t want to be associated with any of his message. Our message is absolutely the opposite of his white supremacist message.
Given all of that, we do have a lot to celebrate: We just launched a $3 billion fundraising campaign, and we’ve already raised almost half of it. And for the first time ever, we ranked in the U.S. News top 10 public universities. So our emotions are swinging back and forth every few days between euphoria and dread.
You’ve got students calling you ‘complicit’ for ‘enabling’ what they see as imminent violence. What kind of deliberations have you made in balancing safety and free speech?
I’ve gone through a learning process. Exactly what have the courts decided around the First Amendment and freedom of speech on public universities? It’s quite different from the private university context that I came from nearly three years ago, where we actually did limit who could come to campus.
We indeed want to be models of a university where we are a marketplace of ideas, our students are not protected in any cocoon, we’re not talking to ourselves but we’re engaging with the broad spectrum of public opinion. Controversial speakers can come and speak even when we disagree with them.
On the other hand, this individual is a person that is talking about ethnic cleansing. This individual says he wants a nation of only white people, and one religion. We’re just the opposite of that, and that’s not in my mind something to debate or discuss. His scholarship is not real scholarship.
So that’s the tension. We want to make sure we declare the truth about who he is and what he says and why it’s wrong. And on the other hand we want to be a place where students can learn and make up their own minds about real issues in the world.
Some of these far-right speakers are more provocateurs than academics. Yet they are leveraging the platforms of public universities. Are schools like Florida inevitably stuck paying for this?
It really is a burden, I believe, that our big public research universities, which have been the target so far, cannot bear. We cannot bear the cost, if this endures for the long term. We cannot bear the price of the disruption. We cannot bear even the unsettling nature of canceling classes or the threats that people feel.
We want to be the model of the First Amendment and the marketplace of ideas and welcoming all speakers as well as all students, but there’s a huge cost.
We say free speech, but somebody pays a cost when that freedom of speech is exercised. And in this case, it’s the universities, which I don’t believe are even the audience for this speech. But somehow we are being co-opted and held ransom. And somehow, these speakers are attempting to use our prestige, our visibility, and have it imputed to them, which is just so antithetical to our values.
We need to bring it within reasonable measure. There will always be controversial speakers. And that’s part of a university. And I’ll always get complaints about who’s speaking or what they’re doing. But to be so disruptive and to be so costly, I believe, has gone beyond what’s reasonable. I think at one point the courts actually have to step in and give us some relief.
What would you say if Spencer were here, sitting across from you?
I’ve never met him, and I’ve never spoken to him, and I won’t. I think having the president of a large public university near him would give him credibility and visibility that I wouldn’t want him to have.
But I’m really curious as to whether he believes these outlandish views of race and religion that he espouses. What is his view on the endgame? Is he indeed asking that another nation be created? Is he asking that there be war?
Where will you be during his speech tomorrow?
I have to make a presentation to our Faculty Senate. My plan is to walk over there for that, and to get reports on what is happening. I will also walk around campus as well.
Yesterday I spent two hours out on our plazas, just to engage with students who wanted to express their disappointment in me allowing him to be there, and also to encourage those who felt threatened, to be assuring as much as I could.
There was some back-and-forth about whether Spencer would speak. At one point, UF rejected Spencer’s application. What were those negotiations like?
Before Charlottesville, we had actually agreed that he could rent out space on Sept. 12. We agreed on the time and location, but we had not yet agreed on how much he would pay for security. And then Charlottesville occurred.
Right in the midst of Charlottesville, his organization released on social media that he was coming (to UF). So you can imagine the voicemails and the emails that I’m getting about that as Charlottesville is unfolding.
Then we had social media threats against Gainesville, saying that Charlottesville was the beginning and that Gainesville would be the next. We consulted our external legal counsel, a First Amendment attorney … about whether we could cancel the event given what we saw in Charlottesville and the threats on social media. We were told that we would have a reasonable case of winning given the physical threats. That’s when we decided that we would cancel his event.
The thousands of complaints I was getting turned into thousands of thank yous and praise for not allowing his hate speech on campus. I said thank you for your gratitude, but it’s not because of his message, it’s because of the violence, and I don’t think people heard that.
All along, we knew that if there could be adequate time to prepare for safety, and if there were not continued threats, then we would have to allow him here.
What do you say to students who worry that Spencer’s followers may not heed rules about banned items or illegal behavior?
There is some horrible scenario in which those individuals overwhelm our police officers, but we don’t believe that will occur. We believe we have adequate force so that if there are tiki torches, flames, masks or even conceal-carry that we know about on our campus, that we will be able to stop those people and worst-case, arrest them.
One of the issues we are wrestling with now is whether we should allow outside organizations to rent facilities. I feel strongly that that’s important in a small town like this, for high school commencements and cultural events. But if we had a policy, as some places have, not allowing that, then he would not be here today.
There’s a national conversation to be had, not just for universities but for all of us, about just what does the First Amendment mean and how can we hold that dear, protect it, allow the worst of speech, but yet not overly burden targets where that speech is made.
We’re going to do our very best not to be defined by this and not to let our name be associated with him. And we’re going to use it to, hopefully, do some good. Him coming has really prompted a lot of conversation on campus about race and support of people of color, support of our Jewish community, our Muslim community. In a small way, he is causing us to redouble our focus on supporting actions that are the opposite of what he wants.
Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected]