White supremacist Richard Spencer will speak at the University of Florida later this month — his first campus speaking appearance since the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in early August.
The university, located in Gainesville, estimates it will end up paying $500,000 for security costs at the one-day event, slated for Oct. 19, according to a press release sent to VICE News. It’s the latest example of a public university footing the bill for security for right-wing speakers. The University of California at Berkeley spent $800,000 on security for Milo Yiannopoulos’ planned “Free Speech Week,” which ended up lasting just 15 minutes. The University of Florida, however, will also charge Spencer more than $100,000 to rent the facility on campus.
Spencer — who spearheaded the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville as part of his mission to establish a white ethnostate — was originally scheduled to speak on Sept. 12, but school administrators cancelled the event. When his lawyer threatened to sue, the school reversed course. Administrators conceded they had no constitutional authority to ban Spencer from campus and that anxiety in the wake of Charlottesville had driven their decision.
Spencer’s confirmed appearance at the University of Florida has already stoked outrage and a likely backlash from counterprotest groups. One event, called “No Nazis at UF,” scheduled for the same day as Spencer’s speech, already has more than 2,500 people “attending” and another 6,000 “interested” in the event on Facebook. “It’s Going Down,” the online hub for antifa organizers, has also issued a call to action urging groups to arrange their travel to Gainesville for Oct. 19 as soon as possible.
Spencer’s victory at the University of Florida exemplifies how hosting controversial speakers puts public universities in a bind. People like Spencer — the most prominent figure in the so-called “alt-right” movement — have pushed the free speech issues to their limits, and schools find themselves toeing the line between upholding First Amendment rights and keeping their campuses safe.
On the eve of the rally in Charlottesville, for example, neo-Nazis marched through the University of Virginia waving tiki torches and chanting “Jews will not replace us.” The following day, neo-Nazis clashed violently with counterprotesters, killing one person and injuring dozens more.
The so-called “alt-right” — embodied by groups like the National Policy Institute, which Spencer runs, and white supremacist group Identity Evropa — are targeting college campuses as part of a carefully crafted strategy to rebrand white supremacy, experts told VICE News. “White Nationalism 2.0,” as it’s often described in far-right circles, looks like Spencer: well-spoken, erudite, and khaki-clad.
Far-right personalities accuse college campuses of becoming liberal bubbles hostile to conservative thought. And key figures in and close to the Trump Administration have embraced the same idea. On Thursday evening, for example, Donald Trump Jr., told the crowd at a fundraising event at a private Christian university in Alabama that college campuses teach Americans to hate their country and their religion.
In September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions jumped into the debate and vowed that under his leadership, the DOJ would “enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come.”
Universities in America, according to Sessions, are increasingly “ echo chamber[s] of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
University of Florida might be the first campus to open its doors to Spencer since Charlottesville, but it’s unlikely to be the last. Last month, Spencer’s lawyer sued the University of Michigan for refusing to let his client rent out a space on its campus. He has also threatened to take legal action against the University of Ohio for the same reason.
Cover image: Richard Spencer, who leads a movement that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism, holds up a magazine cover showing President-elect Donald Trump before signing it for a supporter Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)