When Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Florida last month, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency. On Monday, he did the same thing in Alachua County, ahead of a speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“We live in a country where everyone has the right to voice their opinion, however, we have zero tolerance for violence and public safety is always our number one priority,” Scott said in a statement. “This executive order is an additional step to ensure that the University of Florida and the entire community is prepared so everyone can stay safe.”
“I find that the threat of a potential emergency is imminent,” Scott declared in his executive order, noting that Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell had requested the state’s assistance. The order will make it easier for various agencies to coordinate a security plan for Thursday’s speech at the university.
The school had denied an earlier request from Spencer to speak in September, citing imminent threats against Gainesville and the university following the violence in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. Spencer was a headliner at the “Unite the Right” rally there that spurred clashes between white supremacists and protesters, leaving dozens injured. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a man drove his car into a group of protesters.
But state’s flagship university had to let Spencer speak on campus eventually. As a state entity, the administration explains in an extensive Q&A, “UF must allow the free expression of speech. We cannot prohibit groups or individuals from speaking in our public forums except for limited exceptions, which include safety and security.”
The university’s president, W. Kent Fuchs, urged students and staff to avoid the event.
“[D]o not provide Mr. Spencer and his followers the spotlight they are seeking,” he wrote. “By shunning him and his followers, we will block his attempt for further visibility.”
Nonetheless, protests are expected. As of noon ET Tuesday, a Facebook event called “No Nazis at UF — Protest Richard Spencer” had drawn some 2,800 people who say they’ll attend, with an additional 7,300 who say they’re interested.
No campus group invited Spencer to speak, and the university is not hosting or sponsoring the event. Spencer’s group, the National Policy Institute, is paying the university $10,564 for facility rental and security.
The speech and accompanying protests are also a major expense: The university as well as state and local agencies expect to spend more than $500,000 to provide additional security.
And the University of Florida can’t demand that Spencer pay the full cost of protecting him, because of a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement.
In that decision, the university explains, “the Court clarified that the government cannot assess a security fee on the speaker based upon the costs of controlling the reaction of potential hostile onlookers or protestors,” under legal doctrine known as the “heckler’s veto.”
“It’s flattering, I guess,” Spencer told the Tampa Bay Times, regarding Scott’s executive order. “I am in the same genre as hurricanes and invading armies.”
A university spokeswoman told the newspaper that the order will make it easier to recoup the cost of providing security for the event.
Although the University of Florida’s president urged avoiding the event itself, he called for the campus community to challenge Spencer’s “message of hate and racism.”
“Speak up for your values and the values of our university. Make it clear that messages of hate on our campus are contrary to those values,” Fuchs wrote. “Those of us in the majority must speak up for those in the minority and make our voice of love and support heard.”