As the University of Florida prepares to allow white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on its campus, experts said the school is making the legally correct decision, even as other colleges hold firm in rejecting him.
UF is one of several universities recently forced to deal with a planned visit by Spencer, who has advocated the creation of a white “ethno-state” in North America and what he describes as “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
After violence erupted during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., UF rejected Spencer’s request to speak on its campus Sept. 12. However, facing a possible lawsuit, the university this month relented, tentatively scheduling the speech for Oct. 19.
“The only foreseeable bar to the speech is if UF imposes an unreasonable fee for security,” Gary Edinger, an attorney for Spencer, said in an email. “My clients have not yet talked to UF about that because the university has been closed down” because of Hurricane Irma.
Several attorneys who specialize in First Amendment law said the courts have set a high bar for a public university to deny event space to a controversial speaker, even in a charged racial climate.
“There is a line, and the line is if the speech incites immediate violence,” said Lawrence Walters, an attorney and anti-censorship advocate. “A speaker can talk about engaging in violence, can discuss violence, can discuss hate and anger and so forth. Those types of speech are protected by the First Amendment.”
Walters argued that UF was not justified in denying Spencer’s original application, which he called a “knee-jerk reaction to a pretty traumatic event for the country,” which was “obviously motivated by the… politics of Mr. Spencer.”
Ari Cohn, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said it was difficult to judge if UF’s initial rejection was justified because the university “didn’t explain if there were any credible threats” as opposed to “vague security concerns.”
“If there’s no actual threat, then we don’t sacrifice the First Amendment simply because something bad happened somewhere else,” he said. “It all depends on the particular circumstance. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
UF first issued a statement Aug. 12, the same day the Unite the Right rally in Virginia, which Spencer attended, erupted into chaos. A woman was killed when a car ran into counterprotesters.
A supporter of Spencer’s…