White nationalist Richard Spencer is slated to give his first speech since the fatal rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Thursday at the University of Florida, and with tensions running high, the Gainesville community is grappling with conflicting approaches on how to respond.
The university administration and a coalition of student groups are encouraging people to steer clear of an event they say is intended to provoke, while many other students and Florida residents plan to publicly rally against Spencer’s message, insisting it can’t go unchallenged.
“Our sole focus is to help divert attention from his assembly tomorrow,” said Bijal Desai, a University of Florida student and member of #TogetherUF, a coalition of student groups organized in the wake of Charlottesville to fight racism and hate on campus.
To draw eyes away from a man seen making Nazi salutes at a karaoke bar in a recently surfaced video, #TogetherUF organized counter-programming that includes a “virtual assembly” with cameos from celebrities like actor Kal Penn and WWE fighter Titus O’Neil, as well as a fundraiser to boost donations for the school’s student affairs crisis fund.
School officials including university president Ken Fuchs have pushed that approach, which allows people to address Spencer’s message while avoiding his physical event. After initially refusing Spencer’s request to rent space at UF for September, citing the violence in Charlottesville and the white nationalist’s “repugnant” rhetoric, Fuchs agreed to let Spencer hold the event at a later date under threat of legal action.
First Amendment experts have told TPM that Spencer would likely have prevailed if he took legal action against the university, due to a combination of court precedent, the difficulty of preemptively proving that a speaker will provoke violence, and strong free speech protections on state school campuses.
Now that the speech is happening, Gov. Rick Scott (R) has declared a state of emergency in the county where UF is located, while the school itself is shelling out some $500,000 in security costs. University officials and police have released a flood of information on the rules for the hundreds of counter-protesters who are expected to mobilize outside the school’s Philips Center during Spencer’s talk. Adding to that already chaotic atmosphere, university officials say over 200 journalists have requested credentials to cover the speech.
Spencer’s appearance was orchestrated by Cameron Padgett, a grad student at Georgia State University who says he has taken it upon himself both to organize Spencer’s speaking appearances at major public universities across the country and to help take those schools who refuse to host the white nationalist to court.
Padgett is also expected to assume an on-the-ground role helping distribute the 700 tickets that have been issued for Spencer’s UF speech. Spencer’s nonprofit organization, the National Policy Institute, elected not to use the Phillips Center box office after a local brewery offered to provide students with free beer in exchange for their tickets.
A coalition of protesters that includes both UF students and outside groups plans to hold a “No Nazis at UF” rally outside the facility, in the protest zone cordoned off by police. Black Lives Matter Tampa, Atlanta Antifascists, UF pro-immigrant group Chispas and the Young Democratic Socialists of America’s UF chapter are expected to be out in force at the event, which one organizer said he believes will draw “thousands.”
“We hope we can follow the example of Boston and San Francisco where when they came out and spoke, the protesters showed up en masse and everyone went home safe and was aware that there were more of us than there were of them,” Mitch Emerson, an Orlando organizer working on UF’s protest, told TPM, referring to other recent “free speech” and far-right events.
Emerson said that simply ignoring the event is not an option for him and for many of his fellow protesters, as he says the media would have covered the speech regardless and they “don’t want people to think Gainesville doesn’t have a problem” with Spencer.
The university couldn’t provide an estimate of how many counter-protesters it expects on Thursday. UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes told TPM the school is “prepared for many and we’re hopeful for few.”
Spencer, for his part, is characteristically thrilled by the attention, firing off tweets comparing his arrival to that of a hurricane and noting with relish where the news of his speech stacks up with other stories.