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Legal battle draws near as white nationalist sends ultimatum to UF

The legal wheels are turning in Gainesville as white nationalist leader Richard Spencer insists on following through with his plans to speak at the University of Florida and the school's leaders remain determined to avoid the kind of violence that broke out in Charlottesville, Va. recently. Spencer has hired an attorney and is preparing to fight the school's recent denial of his request to speak. [iStockphoto
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The legal wheels are turning in Gainesville as white nationalist leader Richard Spencer insists on following through with his plans to speak at the University of Florida and the school's leaders remain determined to avoid the kind of violence that broke out in Charlottesville, Va. recently. Spencer has hired an attorney and is preparing to fight the school's recent denial of his request to speak. [iStockphoto ]
Published Sep. 1, 2017

The Gainesville lawyer fighting for Richard Spencer's chance to speak at the University of Florida says that, politically speaking, he's about as far left of his white nationalist client as he could imagine.

"I voted for Bernie Sanders, not because I didn't like Hillary, but because I wanted to vote for a socialist," attorney Gary Edinger said with a laugh. "But I'm a First Amendment attorney, and they present a valid First Amendment claim."

That's why Edinger signed on to challenge UF, which cited safety concerns in rejecting Spencer's application to rent campus space for a Sept. 12 speech.

On behalf of client Cameron Padgett, the event organizer, Edinger sent university officials a formal notice on Thursday, giving them one more chance to let Spencer speak — or UF will be taken to federal court.

University officials said they are weighing their next steps and may respond as soon as Friday. President Kent Fuchs has vowed that UF will stand its ground.

"We are prepared to vigorously defend our decision," he wrote to students this week. "The safety of our students, faculty and staff is our highest priority."

Spencer, whose National Policy Institute advocates for a white "ethno-state" achieved by "peaceful ethnic cleansing," applied to speak at UF in early August. The university reserved his spot while officials estimated costs. UF's bylaws forbade the school from discriminating based on the group's platform, even as Fuchs emailed students that the visit would be "deeply disturbing."

But in the days after white nationalists descended upon Charlottesville, Va., an outpouring of calls beseeched UF to turn Spencer away. University leaders talked with law enforcement officers. They decided to deny Spencer's application.

"The University of Florida remains unwaveringly dedicated to free speech and the spirit of public discourse," Fuchs wrote to students. "The likelihood of violence and potential injury — not the words or ideas — has caused us to take this action."

Legal experts have said UF likely faces an uphill battle in a legal system with robust protections for free speech, particularly speech that has not yet been uttered.

Auburn University tried to deny Spencer a venue this spring, but was ultimately forced to host him after Padgett filed an injunction and a federal judge intervened on First Amendment grounds.

In his complaint, Padgett called Auburn's attempt to block Spencer a "heckler's veto," in which speech is stifled in anticipation of a hostile audience.

"Various minority advocacy groups of Jews, Blacks and immigrants and left-wing/liberal groups demanded that no forum be afforded for the expression of views that contradict their own," read Padgett's complaint.

When Spencer eventually visited Auburn, he talked about free speech.

If UF doesn't change its mind, Edinger, the Gainesville attorney, plans to file for injunction on Spencer's behalf in a matter of days. He is already drafting the paperwork.

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Spencer's group is flexible in terms of venue and timing, Edinger wrote in his letter to UF. He reminded the school that Spencer will cover all reasonable security costs. And he warned of enabling a heckler's veto.

"Ultimately they want to have their speech rights vindicated," Edinger said. "As a First Amendment observer, we've been real concerned about how campuses treat free speech rights for visitors like these guys."

Attorney Sam Dickson, a white nationalist, won the case at Auburn. He said school administrators cave to public pressure, knowing dollars are on the line.

"They would rather have the courts say, 'You've got to do it,'" Dickson said. "(Administrators) want to be able to say, 'I did everything I could, I was just stopped by the First Amendment. Give me the money, I'm on your side.'"

Padgett, a 23-year-old Georgia State University senior, said the violence in Charlottesville, where white nationalists brawled with protesters and one peaceful protestor was killed, should not have any bearing on Spencer's ability to speak.

"The reason it's being shut down is these communist people who show up in these masks," Padgett said. "If they didn't show up, there wouldn't be any cops needed at all."

He denied that Spencer's group practices hate.

"'Neo-Nazi' and 'racist' and 'bigot' — they're all just white slur terms to shut down speech," Padgett said.

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.

A planned "No Nazis at UF" protest in Gainesville is still on, according to organizers. More than 2,200 people have said they will attend on Sept. 12.

Gov. Rick Scott spoke with Fuchs Wednesday to make sure UF has all the resources it needs going forward. Police have been preparing for the potential visit since it was announced.

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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