The University of Florida has denied a request from a white nationalist group to speak on campus in early September, it announced through a message from UF President Dr. W. Kent Fuchs on Wednesday.
The message, posted to Facebook and disseminated to the “campus community,” cites “serious concerns for safety” as the primary reason for the denial.
Amid serious concerns for safety, we have decided to deny the National Policy Institute’s request to rent event space at the University of Florida.
This decision was made after assessing potential risks with campus, community, state and federal law enforcement officials following violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va., and continued calls online and in social media for similar violence in Gainesville such as those decreeing: “The Next Battlefield is in Florida.”
I find the racist rhetoric of Richard Spencer and white nationalism repugnant and counter to everything the university and this nation stands for.
That said, the University of Florida remains unwaveringly dedicated to free speech and the spirit of public discourse. However, the First Amendment does not require a public institution to risk imminent violence to students and others.
The likelihood of violence and potential injury – not the words or ideas – has caused us to take this action.
Additionally, in a statement released by UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes, Fuchs is quoted as saying “Denying this request for university space is the safest and most responsible decision we can make.”
Fuchs had previously addressed the efforts of the National Policy Institute — a white nationalist group designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and led by Richard Spencer, who spoke at a Friday rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the city’s planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee — on Saturday, in an email calling Spencer’s potential presence “deeply disturbing” and urging the UF community to “promote positive speech.”
But that email also included the caveat that “we must follow the law, upholding the First Amendment not to discriminate based on content and provide access to a public space,” and explained that University of Florida regulations allow for non-university speakers to rent space on campus, provided they cover costs.
Obviously, denying a hate group a platform to preach hate is a net positive for society — especially in the immediate wake of the violent fallout from this weekend’s gathering of many of those groups, including white nationalists, white supremacists, Confederacy sympathizers, neo-Nazis, and anti-government militia, in Charlottesville, which turned deadly when a man rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one and injuring 19 others. Such an event occurring in Florida raises even more significant safety concerns than those that existed in Virginia — where city officials tried and failed to have the event moved to a larger park, and where Governor Terry McAuliffe claimed that police response was mitigated by the fact that many of the far-right rally attendees were well-armed — thanks to the state’s gun laws, with online postings suggesting Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” doctrine could be especially problematic alarming authorities.
Still, it is conceivable this decision could open UF up to legal challenges from the hate group, whose executive director claimed on Twitter on Wednesday that UF officials “signed an agreement and can’t do this under the (First Amendment),” and has since told the Tampa Bay Times it will look to sue the university.
While there is reason for rejoicing about this decision and what it could do to help stem the dismaying growth of hate groups in recent years — and may, in a bizarre twist, bring former NFL wide receiver Chad Ochocinco to campus — it seems likely that this is merely one step in what must be a long and concerted effort by Fuchs, other university officials, and that campus community to ensure that the University of Florida and Gainesville rejects the virulent, vicious, and despicable hate that those groups seek to spread into the world.