University of Florida Holds Free Speech Forum Amid Rising Tensions

Richard Spencer speaking in November 2016. (Unmodified Creative Commons photo by V@s. bit.ly/1ryPA8o)

Ahead of Richard Spencer’s highly controversial speech on Oct. 19, the University of Florida hosted its first planned event Thursday in an attempt to alleviate the mounting questions surrounding the circumstances of the planned speech.

The event, A Conversation on the First Amendment, covered why Spencer and his organization are legally allowed to speak, even though their views are known to be racist and hurtful.

Hosted by the UF Division of Student Affairs and UF Multicultural & Diversity Affairs, the forum took place in the Reitz Union Rion Ballroom and hosted a three-member panel of University of Florida professors including Kenneth Nunn, Clay Calvert and Paul Ortiz.

The seminal question going into the discussion and then repeated by the audience initiated questions was why is Spencer allowed to speak?

For the Director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida Clay Calvert, the answer is clear.

Calvert said because the university is a public institution and an arm of the government the First Amendment applies within the context of free speech.

Second, Calvert said hate speech, which Spencer’s ideas fall into, is protected as long as there is not a true threat or incitement of imminent violence.

Calvert said during the forum that Spencer would have to start speaking and then make a direct call for violence before any action could be taken against him.

However, following the discussion University of Florida President Kent Fuchs said if they receive any threats, before the speech, the event will be shut down.

“If we believe there will be real violence we will cancel it and we are not going to let him back, we’re not going to reschedule it,” said Fuchs.

In a follow up to Fuchs comments, Calvert said a true threat of violence is an exception to the First Amendment and could be grounds for cancellation but law enforcement would have to evaluate the seriousness of the threat, especially if it is coming from a third party not associated with Spencer.

Fuchs said that law enforcement, including the FBI, have not picked up any real threats to the Oct. 19 date unlike with the originally scheduled Sept. 12 date which was cancelled due to threats of violence.

In Calvert’s final opening remark, he said locations like the site of Spencer’s speech, the Phillips Center, legally has to allow dissenting voices.

“Once you create a public forum for speech then a principle called viewpoint neutrality comes in,” said Calvert. “And then the government, the University of Florida, cannot discriminate against a speaker because of the viewpoint that speaker holds.”

Fuchs, who did not give public remarks to the forum, said in an interview that the university did have control over where and when the Spencer event could occur.

Originally, Fuchs said, Spencer’s National Policy Institute wanted to hold the speaking engagement at the centrally located Reitz Union but the idea was rebuffed by the university who offered the Phillips Center, the traditional location for speaking engagements which is strategically located away from the student body in the southwest corner of the campus.

In addition to the location, due to the increased security challenges of maintaining a safe environment at night, Fuchs said choosing the 2:30 p.m. timeslot was also done on purpose.

For some in the audience the extension of the First Amendment to a speaker who espouses visions of a white ethnostate and last year was met with Nazi salutes after concluding a speech with: “Hail Trump, Hail our People, Hail victory,” was too much to handle.

In a passionate opening question, the tension in Roberto Munoz’s voice was apparent as he tried to reconcile allowing Spencer to speak after the events in Charlottesville.

Specifically, he recounted the moment when an attendee of the Unite the Right Rally, which Spencer was set to speak at, plowed his car into counterprotesters injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer.

The answer he received reiterated the points made earlier that past acts are not grounds for meeting the bar of imminent violence.

For natural resources and environmental graduate student Lillian Pride, who asked about the legality of discussing illegal acts, she said the event helped put into perspective the balance between free speech and the suppression of that right.

In addition to taking the floor at the forum, Pride wants to start her own movement over the next week by passing out heart-shaped red, yellow, black and white buttons to remind everyone of the power of love and diversity.

Her work will be in addition to more university run events which will culminate in a “virtual assembly” on the day of the speech.

University student’s Bijal Desai and Ianne Itchon announced at the conclusion of the forum, the event will include speakers, conversation couches and interactive discussions and will be hosted by Together UF, a new initiative created this semester to embrace diversity throughout the university.

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