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White nationalist Richard Spencer's UF speech date set, organizer says

Some final details remain. But after signing off on security cost estimates, notorious white nationalist Richard Spencer is poised to speak at the University of Florida in three weeks.

UF cautions that Spencer's people still haven't been sent a contract.

"Just because they've agreed to pay doesn't mean we've received a check," UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said.

But Spencer's event organizer is already claiming victory as weeks of negotiations draw to a close.

"I think it's a success, and I hope the event is a success," organizer Cameron Padgett said. "It being peaceful is my No. 1 goal."

UF initially rejected Spencer's request to speak on campus in the weeks after his rhetoric ignited violence in Charlottesville, Va. Free speech experts raised their eyebrows. Spencer hired an attorney.

UF then said Spencer could speak at another time, so he asked for Oct. 19. He got it.

Sikes said that when the event is finalized, the university will reach out to the campus community with details.

Gainesville First Amendment attorney Gary Edinger, who advocated for Spencer despite polar-opposite political beliefs, said the discussions were on track to be completed.

"Rather than a battle in the streets, it appears that the event will play out in the marketplace of ideas," Edinger wrote in an email. "The First Amendment was well-served here."

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Spencer's National Policy Institute, dedicated to the "heritage, identity and future of people of European descent," plans to rent the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts that afternoon, a Thursday. Spencer himself advocates for a white "ethno-state" achieved by "peaceful ethnic cleansing."

The 1,750-seat venue, plus insurance, ticketing, staffing and security, will cost the group between $8,425 and $10,565.

Security costs proved the most expensive, with estimates from $2,736 to $3,870. That funds security inside the center — not outside, where protests may take place.

Edinger said his clients found those costs acceptable.

For comparison, UF's University Athletic Association paid school police $51,380 for its recent home football game against Tennessee.

"I'm very curious about why that security cost is so low," said Mitch Emerson, who is helping to organize a same-day protest against Spencer. "No matter what, if hate's coming to your town, and you want to stand up to oppose it, as is your American right, then it's their job to keep people safe. And to estimate at the high end of $10,000 … that seems awfully low to me."

Padgett, a 23-year-old Georgia State student, has helped Spencer arrange college visits before. When Auburn University rejected Spencer earlier this spring, Padgett took the school to court and won a federal injunction on First Amendment grounds. The speech went on.

Conversations with UF, Padgett said, have been professional and fair.

"That's what a public university should do," he said. "Anything that's meaningful is always controversial, so I'm not apologizing for anything."

First Amendment lawyers warn that when schools deny a platform to speakers like Spencer by citing potential violence, they're in danger of illegally suppressing speech in anticipation of a hostile audience, what's known as a "heckler's veto." Experts also say it's near-impossible to legally suppress speech that hasn't yet been uttered.

Initially, Spencer asked for Sept. 12. UF reserved the time and space while it estimated rental costs. President Kent Fuchs emailed students to say that the university was in a legal bind because it can't consider the content of a group's platform when it opens up space, even when it is as "deeply disturbing" as Spencer's.

Immediately, police talked security plans. Hundreds of students, alumni and parents wrote Fuchs, pleading with him to deny Spencer's movement its spotlight. Gov. Rick Scott called the National Guard. Students worried over message boards where commenters declared, "The Next Battlefield is in Florida."

School officials said UF was grappling with the right balance between the rules of free speech and the responsibilities of keeping students safe.

Fresh in students' minds were videos from Charlottesville, where white supremacists marched with torches across the University of Virginia's lawn, chanting Nazi slogans and attacking protesters. Later, they massed for Spencer's "Unite the Right" demonstration. A man drove a car into a crowd, authorities said, killing a protester.

After that, UF rejected Spencer's application.

"The likelihood of violence and potential injury — not the words or ideas — has caused us to take this action," Fuchs wrote in a statement. The rejection set up a thorny legal battle, as Spencer touted his Auburn victory and said he would sue again.

His lawyer, Edinger, sent UF a formal notice. If they didn't open the door to Spencer, they'd be going to court.

UF replied, saying the rejection was never meant to be a permanent ban — more of a postponement for a better time. Spencer would be able to try again.

Between First Amendment battles, fiery far-right speakers and scores of impassioned protesters, the issue of free speech has roiled college campuses across the nation.

Padgett on Thursday lamented the conservative author Ben Shapiro's recent visit to the University of California, Berkeley, which shelled out an estimated $600,000 in security. Those costs don't implicate Shapiro, Padgett said, but protesters instead.

"I don't like these anarchist people pushing the narrative on who should be able to speak and who can't," he said. "I don't like Ben Shapiro at all, but he has the right to speak."

In Gainesville, students and activists are gearing up for a protest. Plans are still in the works.

So too are plans for Spencer's speech, Padgett said. He mentioned the possibility of additional speakers, but said the details would be up to Spencer.

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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