After rejecting a request by white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on campus and being threatened with a federal lawsuit, the University of Florida has set a tentative Oct. 19 date for an appearance by the “alt-right” leader.
“As a public institution, UF is required by law to make a good faith effort to provide options for a reasonable date, time and campus venue, no matter how much we detest the points of views expressed. As with any event, we also have a responsibility to assess safety and security risks, and will continue to do so until the event,” the university said in a news release Thursday.
University President Kent Fuchs last month rejected a request by Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, to appear Sept. 12 at a campus forum.
Fuchs cited security concerns in the wake of a deadly white-nationalist rally Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va., in which a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Two Virginia state troopers also died in a helicopter crash while monitoring the situation.
But Gary Edinger, a Gainesville First Amendment lawyer, threatened to sue the university on behalf of Spencer, the National Policy Institute, and Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student involved in organizing Spencer’s speech.
Edinger said Thursday he and university officials are still working out “some small details, but the parties appear to have a meeting of the minds” regarding how much the university will be allowed to charge his clients for security. The speech would be held at the university’s Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
“This was no doubt a sensitive and difficult issue for the University of Florida, but all citizens should be pleased that the First Amendment was ultimately respected,” Edinger said.
Spencer, a controversial figure who has been an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, earned notoriety following a press conference where followers broke out in Nazi-like salutes in response to Spencer saying, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
Earlier this year, Auburn University paid $29,000 in legal fees for Padgett after he sued the school for denying Spencer the opportunity to speak.
In Thursday’s news release, University of Florida officials said the Oct. 19 date wasn’t finalized.
The school has been meeting for a month with state, local and federal law-enforcement agencies to come up with a “comprehensive campus and community security plan,” according to the release.
“UF deplores Spencer’s and the National Policy Institute’s rhetoric and views, which run counter to those of this institution. We also acknowledge that many of our students, faculty and staff are disproportionately impacted by their racism,” the release said. “While this event is not in any way affiliated with the university, UF supports the constitutional right to free speech, and our role as a public university includes legal obligations to allow a wide range of viewpoints to be expressed by external groups —- even when they are contrary to the core values of our university.”
Edinger and other First Amendment lawyers maintain that the university’s ability to restrict controversial figures like Spencer from appearing on campus is limited, even in the aftermath of Charlottesville.