The anxiety leading up to white nationalist Richard Spencer‘s speech Thursday at the University of Florida nearly eclipsed the tension on campus, where the alt-right leader struggled to deliver his message amid defiant chants of “Spencer go home!” from an audience dominated by opponents.
Spencer’s appearance culminated weeks of handwringing about free speech on college campuses, identity politics and how to handle a man characterized by UF President Kent Fuchs as a “racist” who “failed miserably” to disrupt the community.
The storm over Spencer, who held a prominent role at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., that turned deadly in August, has subsided, for now at least.
But debate about the First Amendment likely hasn’t. Public universities may be exploring how they can avoid being caught in a similar bind as the one that confronted Fuchs.
Fuchs and politicos from Gov. Rick Scott to the mayor of Gainesville might deplore the separatist, anti-Semitic ideology Spencer and his ilk espouse. But while they can shun him, they can’t shut him up.
As Attorney General Pam Bondi, among those who urged people to boycott the speech, said earlier in the week, “you know, with free speech,” Spencer’s going to do his thing.
Voltaire is often mistakenly credited with the following well-known phrase, but it was coined by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre, in a book about the French philosopher.
“I wholly disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The message is more relevant today than ever, in Gainesville and throughout the state.
BOOS AND MIDDLE FINGERS
With their fists – and middle fingers – held high, a less-than-packed crowd shouted down Spencer as soon as he stepped onstage Thursday at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
Spencer, leader of the National Policy Institute, and the crowd jeered at one another throughout his remarks, in which he called America a “white country” and attempted to preach about what he and his supporters called the failure of diversity and the success of identity politics.
But the perpetual heckling quashed much of the dialogue, angering Spencer, who mocked the university students throughout his remarks.
“You think that you shut me down, but you didn’t. You even failed in your own game,” Spencer told the crowd before departing. “The world is going to look at this event and the world is going to have a very different impression … and the world is not going to be proud of you.”
Hundreds of protesters gathered on blocked-off streets outside the venue.
Inside, about 30 white-shirted supporters lined the front two rows, cheering Spencer and other speakers during the 90-minute event. Those in the front rows were separated by several empty rows from the more inflamed audience members who were targeted by speakers for supporting “anti-white” diversity.
Many students and faculty strongly opposed Spencer’s appearance, which Fuchs and others urged the university community to shun.
“This guy is out there espousing violence and hatred and anger,” Bondi told reporters Tuesday.
Scott, who declared a state of emergency in Alachua County this week, also urged people to avoid the event.
Bondi’s and Scott’s take on Spencer and his followers is “complete nonsense,” Evan McLaren, executive director of Spencer’s National Policy Institute, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview. “There’s nothing hateful about what Richard or myself or National Policy Institute expresses.”
UF had initially denied Spencer’s request to speak. But Fuchs said the public university couldn’t lawfully prohibit the event based on the content or views expressed in the speech.
In his speech, Spencer said he was glad Fuchs “stood behind him” and allowed the event to go on. That drew a hasty rebuke from Fuchs.
“For the record, I don’t stand behind racist Richard Spencer. I stand with those who reject and condemn Spencer’s vile and despicable message,” Fuchs tweeted.
Spencer said those in the audience, many of them students, were acting like “childlike Antifa” – anti-fascists – and that all the world will hear is “a bunch of screeching and grunting morons.”
His jibes were delivered over a crowd whose chants included “F– you, Spencer,” “Nazis are not welcome here,” “Go home Spencer,” and “Black lives matter.”
Fuchs praised how the university dealt with what he called Spencer’s message of hate.
For all the jeering Thursday, law enforcement breathed a sigh of relief that Spencer’s appearance didn’t result in the types of skirmishes that erupted on other college campuses where he has appeared.
A $600,000 security effort resulted in “a mostly peaceful day,” with “minimal acts of violence” and two arrests, according to a joint press release issued by various law enforcement agencies.
But those arrests did not include an ugly off-campus confrontation that wound up with three Texas men, two of them brothers, behind bars after “shouting chants about Hitler” to a group near a bus stop not far from the Phillips Center and shooting at the group, according to Gainesville police. The men were charged with attempted homicide, and held on bail of $1 million to $3 million.
At least two of the three men have shown connections to extremist groups, a press release issued Friday by the Gainesville Police Department said.
The men were arrested Thursday night when an Alachua County deputy spotted their car on his way home from working at the Spencer event.
A-WISHING AND A-HOPING … FOR SCHOOLS
Even as more than a dozen school districts are challenging the law’s constitutionality, the State Board of Education on Wednesday used the new “schools of hope” law to select 11 low-performing public schools to receive additional funding.
The schools will qualify for up to $2,000 in extra per-student funding over the next two years to carry out improvement plans that will include efforts such as tutoring, after-school programs, counseling and teacher development.
At the state board’s meeting in Jacksonville, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said the schools were part of a group of 59 schools that had sought the funding. Schools that did not make the initial cut will have a chance to reapply in the near future, she said.
Miami-Dade County has five schools on the approved list, followed by Palm Beach County with three, Bay County with two and Seminole County with one. Polk, Orange and Duval counties were among those that did not make the list.
Stewart said she and Public Schools Chancellor Hershel Lyons will work on “strengthening” the proposals of schools that submitted applications but did not make the cut.
Lawmakers this year set aside $140 million in the new “schools of hope” program, specifying that a portion of the funding would be used to provide extra funding for up to 25 low-performing traditional public schools. The rest of the funding would go to “hope operators,” who could set up charter schools within five miles of “persistently” low-performing public schools.
Thirteen school districts have filed a lawsuit challenging numerous provisions of the “schools of hope” law related to the charter schools. They argued the law is unconstitutional because it limits the power of local school boards to “control and supervise” all public schools in their districts.
STORY OF THE WEEK: White nationalist Richard Spencer addressed a jeering crowd Thursday at the University of Florida.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The whole world was watching, and the whole world saw how we responded to a hateful and despicable bully.” University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, on white nationalist Richard Spencer’s appearance in Gainesville.
Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.