Disagreements and controversy surrounding Richard Spencer’s October event at the University of Florida was the theme for the annual UF Provost’s Symposium, which began on Thursday and concludes today at Pugh Hall.
The discussion topic chosen this year by Provost Joe Glover and the Bob Graham Center focused on the rise of extremism on campus and across the nation.
On October 19, white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke on campus at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, just a few months after a similar rally in Charlottesville, VA that turned deadly. The university’s legal obligation to allow Spencer to speak was a concern for many members of the campus community.
The event invited participation from faculty and staff, and presented speakers such as professor Amir Erez, from the Warrington College of Business, Dr. Diana Boxer, from the Department of Linguistics and Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project.
During today’s morning session, Calvert defended Spencer’s right to speak on campus. He said the public needs to understand that hate speech is usually protected under the first amendment and stressed the importance of being neutral when analyzing freedom of speech.
“The first amendment is a viewpoint-neutral document. It doesn’t say good speech, or bad speech, or republican speech, or democratic speech or communist speech,” he said “The majority can’t control the first amendment.”
Chelsea Dinsmore, chair of digital production services at UF libraries, attended Thursday’s session to hear her colleagues’ ideas, hoping for answers on how to address hate speech on campus.
“I was deeply troubled by the Richard Spencer event here on campus,” she said. Dinsmore said her children, who attend Alachua County public schools, had to do lock-down drills at school because of Spencer’s event. She said she was not sure how to explain why that was happening.
UF President Kent Fuchs accompanied the provost on Thursday in welcoming faculty and staff to the symposium. He hoped the people at the event event get a better understanding of the law, such as protocol for public universities and understanding how each person is affected differently by another’s exercise of free speech.
In preparation for Spencer’s visit, Fuchs said he advised students to not engage the speaker as a way of protecting the well-being of the those against Spencer and combat his views. Nevertheless, he supports those who went to protest inside and outside the Phillips Center.
“I understand those that feel they can’t let his message go unchecked.” Fuchs said.
Sana Mahmood, a member of Islam on Campus at UF, agreed with the Fuchs’ strategy and said her organization also advised the Muslim community on campus to not engage with the speaker.
“Just being yourself and not being afraid of anyone is an effective way of standing up to people like Spencer,” Mahmood said.
On Wednesday prior to the symposium, Mahmood was in Turlington Plaza for the first day of Islam appreciation month, inviting women to experience wearing a hijab for a day. The 21-year-old junior was glad that faculty and staff are engaging in dialogue about extremism through the symposium.
Since the UF event in October, Spencer continues targeting university campuses for his speech. He is in a legal battle with the University of Cincinnati, after the university required him to pay nearly $11,000 in security fees, according to The Washington Post.
“That may be the only good thing that came out of the Richard Spencer event,” Fuchs said. “A true, sort of self-examination among all of us about racism, broadly, but also the other associated issues: our federal laws, how those laws have been interpreted and the responsibility of universities.”