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UF security costs top $500,000 for Richard Spencer's talk on white 'separation'

White nationalist Richard Spencer speaks at Texas A&M University in 2016. Next week, he appears at the University of Florida, where he plans to talk for 30 to 45 minutes then take questions for an hour. Whether students want to banter, ask serious questions or scream, he promised to engage. [Associated Press]
Published Oct. 12, 2017

Richard Spencer wants his talk at the University of Florida to be timely, "not curdled milk."

After all, UF will be the first school to host the notorious white nationalist since his "Unite the Right" rally brought torches, Nazi chants and bloodshed to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Still, his speech will center on his primary concern: what he calls the necessity of white identity, and a white homeland, in a multiracial era. His message to students, he said, will be an adopted mantra from Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher: "Become who you are."

"Out of that, a new consciousness will be borne," Spencer said in an interview.

To his scores of detractors, including UF's president, Spencer is no more than a deplorable racist idealogue.

Yet the university, bound by the First Amendment, has found itself playing host to his contentious talk with an estimated security price tag for UF, and taxpayers, of more than $500,000.

It's just the latest flashpoint in the minefield of free speech on campus.

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)

As UF maneuvers, white nationalists say they're coming to campus (Sept. 1, 2017)

Spencer and his National Policy Institute, which advocates for European heritage, know well that targeting large, public universities like UF is a win-win. They get free speech protections and a built-in audience. Whether students cheer or protest, headlines follow.

And for the most part, universities pay the bill.

That's because the Supreme Court has ruled that speakers can't be made to pay the costs for whatever hostile audience may appear, just like a university can't ban a speaker in anticipation of protesters.

"Speech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned, simply because it might offend a hostile mob," Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in 1992.

Spencer has paid about $10,000 to rent the Phillips Center for a few hours on Oct. 19. That includes $3,870 for security within the venue. But he cannot be held responsible for the vast costs UF is obligated to take on to secure the campus outside.

"I am very well aware that violence is possible, that this is a very serious situation," Spencer said. But he brushed off responsibility, placing it instead on protesters: "It's going to come from these Antifa people and these other thug elements. They want to shut me down and they want to use any means necessary."

Spencer and his supporters often point to protesters as the sole culprits of violence, particularly the masked agitators in black who call themselves anti-fascists. But in Virginia, amid blazing displays of racism, white nationalists attacked protesters, and street brawls broke out among both camps. A man drove into a crowd of protesters, killing a woman.

Hosting lightning-rod speakers, however reluctantly, comes at exorbitant cost. In September, anticipating a repeat of violent campus protests, the University of California, Berkeley paid $600,000 in security for the visit of conservative author Ben Shapiro. Protests remained largely peaceful, and nine were arrested.

Also that month, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos' much-hyped "Free Speech Week" at UC Berkeley fizzled into little more than a shouting match between attendees as legions of armed officers kept watch. The university spent about $800,000 on security from eight agencies.

"Probably the most expensive photo op in the university's history," a school spokesman said.

UF President Kent Fuchs wrote a long email to students this week, lamenting that Spencer and his ilk have seized upon universities as stages. He stressed that UF stands in vehement opposition to "all that Mr. Spencer represents."

He also urged students not to attend the talk.

"By shunning him and his followers we will block his attempt for further visibility," Fuchs wrote, adding, "I ask that you not let Mr. Spencer's message of hate and racism go unchallenged. Speak up for your values and the values of our university."

Sen. Marco Rubio, a UF graduate, has echoed Fuchs' call to ignore the speech.

"Richard Spencer craves publicity. Desperate to incite outrage b/c terrified of @UF speech no one shows up for," Rubio tweeted Wednesday. "#GatorNation not asking u to ignore his racist message. I am suggesting you embarrass him by denying him the attention he craves."

The university has also set up a website, freespeech.ufl.edu, with answers about safety and security. Police have banned a long list of items, including masks, megaphones and anything that can be used as a weapon, even water balloons.

UF officials declined to provide a breakdown for security costs, saying it would reveal plans.

More than 2,650 people have signed an online petition created by students, who say UF is not making Spencer pay enough.

"The message being sent is that this is all the safety of the student body is worth," the petition reads.

On the day of the speech, a coalition of protesters from Black Lives Matter Tampa to Atlanta Antifascists plans to gather near the center. Meanwhile, UF plans to air a virtual assembly "embracing difference and unity."

Inside, Spencer plans to talk for 30 to 45 minutes about white identity, as well as Charlottesville and Chris Cantwell, the white nationalist who appeared in a VICE News documentary. Cantwell was arrested for his behavior in Virginia, with felony charges related to tear gas and causing injury. Spencer allowed that Cantwell had made mistakes, but said he has become a political prisoner.

Spencer will then open the floor for questions. Whether students want to banter or just scream, he promised to engage.

Joining him will likely be Mike "Enoch" Peinovich, a controversial white nationalist blogger who co-hosts the Daily Shoah podcast.

Spencer initially asked to speak on Sept. 12. The university reserved his space while it estimated security costs, but in the wake of Charlottesville, denied his request. Fuchs emailed students, saying that UF based its decision not on Spencer's words, but the potential for violence.

Spencer's attorney began drafting a lawsuit. UF officials said the rejection was never meant to be permanent, and that Spencer should try again for a better date.

"All's well that ends well," Spencer said. "This obviously has become the free speech issue, and the rubber hits the road when free speech involves something controversial."

In Spencer's mind, identity is the beginning and end of politics. And he said the most powerful identity is race.

Spencer said, with nostalgia, that whiteness was long the default in America. The 1960s, when a surge of immigrants reshaped America's demographics, was the era "that gave birth to its own destruction," he said.

He dreams of an ethnostate, a homeland for all whites, but denies calling for mass violence. In interviews, he has spoken of "peaceful ethnic cleansing" through population transfers and immigration reform. He said such a state likely couldn't be created in his lifetime, but remains "a motivating ideal," like the dream of Zionism in Israel.

In the meantime, he supports policies such as net-neutral immigration and school reform.

"Becoming realistic about the reality of race is a good place to start," he said, chalking up test score gaps between black and white students simply to "racial reality," a view that is widely rejected in American education circles and among policy makers of both major political parties.

Yet Spencer rejects the label "white supremacist," preferring the term "identitarian."

"A white supremacist would mean I just want to rule over other races or worse," he said. "What I am saying would not involve ruling millions of non-whites. It would be separation."

On Tuesday, Spencer brushed off Fuchs' disavowal, but said he doubted the president would have lambasted other speakers, even a "flat Earth" believer.

"Would he denounce them? No. And yet he denounces me," Spencer said, laughing. "It's a moral outrage much more than it is about facts or ideas or opinions."

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

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