1. Opinion

Editorial: UF should reconsider denying white nationalist's request to speak

University of Florida president Kent Fuchs understandably cited security concerns Wednesday in denying white nationalist Richard Spencer's application to speak next month on campus. But those security concerns could be addressed, and they should not stamp out free speech at a public university that aspires to be great. Fuchs should reconsider his decision and work with law enforcement on a security plan that protects the First Amendment rights of everyone.

Tensions nationally and in Florida have risen since Spencer and other white supremacists engaged in a violent, deadly confrontation with those protesting them over the weekend in Charlottesville, Va. President Donald Trump ceded any moral high ground and escalated the situation this week by again claiming "there is blame on both sides,'' creating a false equivalency between the self-proclaimed racists brandishing swastikas and spouting anti-Semitic epithets and those who turned out to protest such hate and bigotry. The swift bipartisan response by Floridians such as Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson to the president's defense of Spencer, David Duke and other racists provides comfort and reassurance that the commitment to equality transcends political party affiliation and public policy differences that seem minor by comparison.

But the appropriate response to hateful speech and threats of violence is not denying the speakers the right to speak, particularly at a public university. The university's bylaws say it cannot discriminate against a group based on its message. Fuchs tried to hold that high ground Wednesday, calling Spencer's rhetoric "repugnant" but declaring UF "remains unwaveringly dedicated to free speech and the spirit of public discourse.'' Then he placed campus security above the First Amendment and denied Spencer's request.

As Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, "I can't tell you how many times we have been through this. What a mistake.'' The obligation of law enforcement is to ensure free speech rights of all sides are protected, and there is a better course for UF to take. Fuchs already was in talks with local law enforcement officials and discussing logistics for Spencer's event. Gov. Rick Scott had offered the state's help with security. The state's most prestigious university ought to be able to learn lessons from Charlottesville and provide an opportunity for even a white nationalist as vile as Spencer to speak.

The University of Florida has no obligation to grant Spencer's every wish. Fuchs and law enforcement officials can set the ground rules. They can determine the venue, the timing and the security requirements. They can require Spencer's group to pay up front for the projected security costs. Certainly, this state and this university have the capability and the resources to create a smart security plan to enable one white nationalist to spew his hateful message without triggering a campus riot. If Tampa can safely stage the Republican National Convention on a far bigger stage with far larger crowds and broader security threats, the state and the University of Florida could make this work even if it would be uncomfortable.

The appropriate response to racists is not to gag them and stifle free speech. That only fuels their hatred and gains them sympathizers. The best response is to counter their message with the strong voices of Floridians who embrace equality and religious freedom. UF could continue to provide a separate venue for students and others to make their voices heard in the spirit of the nonviolent protests against discrimination and racism from an earlier era.

Of course the president of the state's flagship university is concerned about safety when a white nationalist wants to speak. The violence in Charlottesville understandably heightens those concerns. But now Fuchs has made Spencer a martyr for the First Amendment and likely triggered a lawsuit by prematurely denying his request to speak. The University of Florida should reconsider, work with the state to create a responsible security plan and let Spencer decide whether he wants to meet those requirements.