The University of Florida in Gainesville is bracing for a day of protests Thursday when white supremacist Richard Spencer arrives on campus to deliver a speech on his racist views.
The event, scheduled for Thursday afternoon, will be Spencer’s first visit to a college campus since he and others participated in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
University and local officials are concerned that Thursday’s event could also become violent, and they have taken a number of steps to prevent that.
On Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for Alachua County, where the university is located, to enable law enforcement agencies to work together more efficiently. He also made a provision for the National Guard to be activated if necessary.
“I find that the threat of a potential emergency is imminent,” Scott said in the executive order declaring the state of emergency.
The event puts the university in the middle of an ongoing debate about what constitutes protected speech and the extent of its limits. University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs denounced Spencer’s white supremacist platform as abhorrent in a letter to students but said the school could not stop him from renting the Phillips Center for the event.
Fuchs told CNN there will be more police on campus Thursday than at any time in the university’s history.
“It’s not going to feel like a research university for 50,000 students, and the whole purpose of that is to keep people safe,” he said.
Fara Moskowitz, the president of the Lubavitch-Chabad Student Group at the university, said it was a “very weird time on campus” ahead of the protests.
“There’s a lot of fear, there’s a lot of anxiety,” she said. “There’s a lot of just unknown what’s going to happen.”
Spencer is the president of the National Policy Institute and a leader of the white supremacist movement that advocates for a white “awakening” and a white state.
“America was, until this last generation, a white country, designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation and our inheritance, and it belongs to us,” he said in a speech last November.
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, Spencer said he was flattered by the state of emergency declaration, which he said put him on par with “hurricanes and invading armies and zombie apocalypses.”
Still, he said he thought the declaration was overkill.
“The fact is, if the police simply do their job, my speech and the whole event will go off wonderfully,” Spencer said.
Previous speeches from Spencer on college campuses have sparked protests, including at Texas A&M in December and Alabama’s Auburn University in April. He also led a group of supporters carrying torches in May in Charlottesville in a display that critics said evoked images of the Ku Klux Klan.
That rally set the stage for violent protests that erupted in Charlottesville in August between white nationalists and counterprotesters. There, police say a man among the white nationalist demonstrators drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman.
Spencer returned to Charlottesville in October with dozens of supporters carrying tiki torches and chanting phrases like “You will not replace us.”
Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Chris Sims said the office used the lessons of Charlottesville in planning for the Florida event. The sheriff’s office and Gainesville Police Department had doubled or in some cases tripled their normal staffing levels as of Wednesday morning, Sims said.
Outside the speech venue, law enforcement sectioned off one area for pro-Spencer protesters and another area for anti-Spencer protesters, each about 50 yards apart. The university also banned an extensive list of items, including torches, masks, weapons and athletic equipment that could be used as a weapon.
It remains unclear how many people are expected to attend or protest the speech. A Facebook event called “No Nazis at UF” that planned to peacefully protest against Spencer had about 3,000 marked as going.
Fuchs, the university president, advised students to shun Spencer and to speak against his “message of hate and racism.”
“UF has been clear and consistent in its denunciation of all hate speech and racism, and in particular the racist speech and white nationalist values of Mr. Spencer,” Fuchs said. “I personally find the doctrine of white supremacy abhorrent and denounce all forms of racism and hate.”
By law, the school must pay for the additional costs of security. Given the heightened concerns, the school is providing extra security that exceeds $600,000, Fuchs said.
That cost will essentially be passed on to taxpayers, which Fuchs said was unfair.
“I really don’t believe that’s fair that the taxpayer is now subsidizing through these kind of events the security and having to subsidize his hate speech,” he said.
How we got here
Spencer and the National Policy Institute first requested to rent speaking space at the university in August. After violent white nationalist protests broke out in Charlottesville, the University of Florida administration denied the National Policy Institute’s initial speaking request, citing specific threats of violence.
As a public university, Florida is prohibited from stopping the event based on the contents or views of the speech, Fuchs said. The university provided a permit for Spencer to speak, but the event is unaffiliated with the school, and no student groups sponsored the speech or invited Spencer, the university said.
Still, Fuchs did take one positive lesson from what he called Spencer’s “anti-American” message.
“The one thing that comes out of this, though, is it is prompting a great discussion around race and religion and the value of diversity of that on a university campus,” Fuchs said.