National News

Colleges Brace for Tumult in 2018 as White Supremacists Demand a Stage

Posted January 17, 2018 1:48 p.m. EST

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Kent Fuchs, the president of the University of Florida, was in the living room of his stately campus residence last fall when he saw the first televised images of a parade of terror unfolding in another college town farther north.

There were protesters. Counterprotesters. Angry confrontations. The night sky was lit by tiki torches in the grips of young white supremacists marching on the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. And later a car, recklessly roaring toward the crowd, killed a counterdemonstrator named Heather Heyer and injured others.

“Oh God, that is headed here,” Fuchs recalls thinking.

Urgent texts and emails punctured the lull of a Saturday morning last fall. Richard Spencer, the star attraction of the Unite the Right rally protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, was headed to the University of Florida. All of a sudden, the line from Charlottesville to Gainesville seemed frighteningly short, direct, unimpeded, with universities across the nation watching on.

Charlottesville changed how universities looked at controversial speakers. It changed how they assessed the literal and figurative cost of free speech. It changed how they secured events with a higher potential for violence.

“Should universities allow controversial speakers to have a platform on campus?” asked Catherine J. Ross, a law professor at George Washington University specializing in constitutional law and the First Amendment. “Generally yes, because the university is uniquely devoted to truth finding, to testing and challenging orthodoxy in every field. There may be some limits — if physical safety is an issue and the risk is real and attributable to the speaker.”

Spencer’s representatives are currently attempting to book him at at least five major universities. Campus presidents across the country are looking to Charlottesville and Gainesville for lessons. “I have had communication with all the schools facing this dilemma and I have told them, whatever you decide, you have to own that decision,” Fuchs said.

In the new year, more universities are faced with that decision: Michigan State recently began mediation as part of a lawsuit over the school’s rejection of a request to have Spencer speak on campus, citing safety concerns.

The University of Michigan is set to consider renting a space to Spencer. Ohio State and Penn State were also sued after denying a rental request. Both had pointed to safety reasons. The suits filed on behalf of Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student who organizes and books Spencer’s appearances, argue that his free speech rights were violated.

And some 800 miles away from Gainesville, administrators at the University of Cincinnati, who also received a request for Spencer to speak on campus, eventually agreed to negotiate a date in mid-March during the school’s spring break. Last week, a lawsuit filed in federal court accuses the university of excessive and therefore “unconstitutional” security fees for Spencer’s appearance. The amount: $10,833.

The University of Florida would eventually cancel Spencer’s visit, but not for long. Spencer, a leader of the far-right white nationalist movement, had the law on his side. When it became clear that his visit was certain, the administration coordinated an event that would come to include a $600,000 price tag. More than 1,000 police officers converged on the ground, in the air, on the roofs — and there was plenty of soul-searching about the role of public universities as incubators of ideas, even those that are unpopular.

“Fear and dread. I just kept thinking, the same person who was in Charlottesville is now coming here,” said Fuchs, who became president in 2015. “Before, this was about rhetoric, now it was about violence.”

The Florida event did not go without some violence. A self-labeled white supremacist was sucker-punched while wearing a swastika T-shirt (he was later hugged and befriended by two black men) and three Texas men were arrested and charged with attempted murder after they taunted a group of anti-Spencer protesters after the event. One of them fired a shot, missing the group.

“It’s not just about the speech,” Spencer said. “It’s about the demonstration of our resolve, of the power of our ideas, of the fact that everyone now has to have an opinion on them.” The National Policy Institute, led by Spencer, first requested a rental space on Florida’s campus on July 31. The university had already agreed to a Sept. 12 date and a campus location when Charlottesville erupted.

Fuchs said Spencer’s message was the exact opposite of the university’s inclusiveness values. But that was beside the point. There was no way, Fuchs believed, he could reasonably protect the 55,460 students against violent protesters or counterprotesters. Members of minority groups make up one-third of the student body at Florida’s pre-eminent public university, including many students born overseas.

During that tense period, Fuchs was on the phone with his most senior administrators and advisers, along with a First Amendment attorney to explore legal options. He wondered whether a judge, through the lens of violence, would side with the university.

On Aug. 16, Florida officially rejected the National Policy Institute’s application, citing public safety concerns. The decision, Fuchs said, was based on the specter of violence, not Spencer’s pointed ideology.

Fuchs suspected the decision would not stand. Auburn University had already lost a similar battle when a federal judge ruled Spencer should be allowed to speak on campus based on his First Amendment rights.

It foreshadowed the story in Gainesville. A local lawyer representing Spencer threatened to sue the university. Florida eventually reversed its decision. Spencer would pay $10,564 to rent the Curtis M. Phillips Center for Performing Arts. He would be speaking on Oct. 19, the first such event at a public university since Charlottesville.

Most every morning until the day Spencer walked onto the stage, a small circle of university administrators, including Fuchs and the campus police chief, Linda Stump-Kurnick, held an 8 a.m. planning call.

“We had to figure out how much or little and the tone of my communications,” he said. “I felt like the students needed to hear from me personally even if they didn’t agree with my thinking.”

The day before Spencer’s speech, a group of students protested outside the administration building. They demanded the resignation of Fuchs if he did not close the campus or lift the ban of prohibited items. “Some students believed that I was complicit in his appearance,” he said. “There was no way to come out of this, as a leader, with your reputation as high or as good as before.”