After Charlottesville, White Nationalist’s Campus Event Fuels Free Speech Debate

Lois Beckett, The Guardian, October 18, 2017

Students at the University of Florida, where a white nationalist leader will speak on Thursday, are facing a difficult choice.

They could listen to Richard Spencer, who wants to form a “white ethno-state” in North America, address the aftermath of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that left dozens of counter-protesters seriously injured and one young woman dead. They could protest as part of the “No Nazis at University of Florida” rally, which more than 2,000 people on Facebook say they plan to attend. Or they could go to Disney World.

Valery Raymond, 22, said he believed going to Disney World with his college friends would be the best choice.

“Protesting in this situation wouldn’t elicit anything positive,” said Raymond, who is black. “I just feel the best thing to do was just to get away, get far enough where I wouldn’t even think about it.”

Spencer, he said, is “basically like a class clown, and they just want attention. If you don’t give them attention, then they lose power.”

Thursday’s afternoon speech in Gainesville, Florida, will be Spencer’s first major public event since a joint rally of far-right groups Charlottesville sparked open fighting in the streets and a fatal attack on a crowd of counter-protesters.

Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, has already declared a state of in the county where the school is located, giving local law enforcement more resources and latitude to respond to unfolding events. On Twitter, Spencer has shared multiple posts comparing himself to a hurricane about to hit Florida.

Since Charlottesville, American public universities have split over whether to allow him to speak or deny him a platform and face a lawsuit over free speech rights.

In April, Auburn University in Alabama attempted to shut down Spencer’s visit to its campus over concerns that it would endanger public safety. But a federal judge handed him a victory, ordering Auburn to let Spencer speak, citing first amendment protections.

“While Mr Spencer’s beliefs and message are controversial, Auburn presented no evidence that Mr Spencer advocates violence,” US district judge Keith Watkins ruled. He also wrote that to cancel Spencer’s speech “based on its belief that listeners and protest groups opposed to Mr Spencer’s ideology would react to the content of his speech by engaging in protests that could cause violence or property damage” was not a legal justification.

For Spencer, the University of Florida speech may be a chance to try to reset the conversation from the intense public condemnation that followed Charlottesville. A speech at Texas A&M University last year offered him the opportunity to garner new media attention after the outrage over Spencer’s choice to shout “Hail Trump! Hail Victory!” at a conference last November, which was met with Nazi salutes.

But his visit is also part of an ongoing white nationalist strategy to force public universities to serve as platforms for extreme racist ideas under the banner of freedom of speech.

Some first amendment experts say public universities are in a bind. Floyd Abrams, a prominent attorney and advocate who specializes in free speech, wrote in an email: “If non-students are permitted to rent space … the university generally may not make distinctions about to whom they rent it based on the content of what they will say.” But, he noted, if Spencer had incited violence in the past, that could be used to deny him access to public university spaces.

Plus, advocates of free speech on campus have a powerful supporter in Donald Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who held a press conference in September promising that the justice department would pursue legal action against universities who infringed on speech freedoms.

“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” he said. “A mature society can tell the difference between violence and unpopular speech.”

The University of Cincinnati, a public university, said this month that it would allow Spencer to speak on campus. But both Michigan State University – which was sued by one of Spencer’s supporters – and Ohio State University said they would not host him, citing safety concerns. Ohio State said, though, that it was “currently considering other alternatives”. Other universities, including Penn State, Louisiana State University, Texas A&M and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, issued statements in August saying that Spencer was not welcome.

While the University of Florida initially blocked Spencer from speaking in September, it later reversed course, giving him a new date to speak in October. W Kent Fuchs, the University of Florida’s president, has said the school is obligated by law both to allow Spencer to speak, as well as to shoulder the more than $500,000 it will cost to provide security while Spencer exercises his freedom of speech.

“If you are like me, I expect you are surprised and even shocked to learn that UF is required by law to allow Mr Spencer to speak his racist views on our campus,” Fuchs said in a statement in early October, urging students to avoid Spencer’s speech but “speak up for your values”.

Some faculty critics accused the university president of enabling Spencer’s activism.

“The president has already announced, in effect, ‘Nazi of the Year’ day, where we can spend half a million dollars every year so we can hear a Nazi,” Thomas Auxter, a university philosophy professor, said at a campus teach-in on Tuesday night that attracted more than 100 people.

Dwayne Fletcher, the president of the university’s black student union, said that reaction to Spencer’s visit among students of color was divided. “The majority of students, who don’t want anything to do with this event, they just want to be as far away as possible,” he said. A smaller number were determined to protest.

To keep students safe, student groups were organizing a virtual counter-protest to Spencer’s speech, rather than an in-person event that might be targeted by his white nationalist supporters.

In hopes of seeing Spencer lecture to an almost-empty hall, a local brewery in downtown Gainesville announced it would give patrons a free beer in exchange for each unused pair of tickets to the white nationalist’s speech.

“We unfortunately can’t stop him from bringing his hate to Gainesville, but we can empty the room so his disgusting message goes unheard,” Alligator Brewing wrote in an Instagram post last week.

In response, Padgett, Spencer’s college tour organizer, announced in a Twitter video on Monday that the university’s Phillips Center would no longer be distributing tickets to the event. Instead, Spencer’s supporters themselves will be distributing the tickets outside the Phillips Center about an hour before the speech.

Organizers of the protest against the white nationalists have questioned why the university is allowing Spencer to control ticketing for his event, which will create a “volatile situation” outside the event space and is a “huge danger”, student organizer Chad Chavira said.

While the University of Florida is not canceling all classes on Thursday, instructors are dealing with classes and student concerns on an individual basis, the university has said in statements. Raymond, whose one class on Thursday has been cancelled, later decided it did not make sense for him to spend the money to go to Disney World, so he plans instead to “relax by the pool, do some schoolwork”, far away from campus.

Some friends may “make it a beach day, something like that – start off the weekend very early”, said Brendon Jonassaint, a first-year graduate student.

Chavira, a junior who is one of the organizers of the “No Nazis at University of Florida” rally, said he understood if marginalized students made the choice to keep themselves safe and far away from the white supremacists. But white students, he said, had a responsibility to speak out against white nationalists on campus.

“For those people who think ignoring fascism is a good idea, I would say it’s not,” he said. “If you look at the history of fascism in the 20s and 30s in Italy and Germany, it was those good, nice people who thought they didn’t have to do anything, that Hitler was stupid, and that people would see how stupid he was.”

“We are committed to nonviolence,” Chavira added.

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