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Spencer’s free speech fails to further dialogue

White nationalist Richard Spencer holds a news conference before giving a speech Oct. 19 at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. (Ricardo Ramirez-Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

White nationalist Richard Spencer holds a news conference before giving a speech Oct. 19 at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. (Ricardo Ramirez-Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)



White nationalist Richard Spencer holds a news conference before giving a speech Oct. 19 at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. (Ricardo Ramirez-Buxeda/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

By Jaime Viens | Contributing Editor

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I had just returned from Shabbat services with my grandpa, president of his temple in central Florida, on Friday, Aug. 11. Following his nightly routine, he switched on the news.

But instead of the local traffic report, he was confronted with video clips of men shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and images of swastikas flashing across his screen.

Richard Spencer, head of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, was one of the main speakers at the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that night. He preached the same canons of white supremacy then as he did last Wednesday, just a few hours’ drive from my grandpa’s front door, at the University of Florida.

The university faced public criticism in September for blocking Spencer from speaking on campus. Members of his posse have taken legal action against a handful of universities that have barred him from speaking, while Spencer himself threatened the University of Florida with a lawsuit. Though the university never actually had to go to court, it capitulated nonetheless.

A public institution such as the University of Florida can and should be able to make decisions about public speakers on its own. But a commitment to providing a platform for students to share and explore their opinions should motivate that decision — not fear of backlash.

With thousands of protesters gathering outside the venue where Spencer was slated to speak, it’s clear the university community wasn’t interested in what Spencer had to say. So if a university chooses not to allow a speaker like Spencer on its campus, it should be allowed to uphold that decision — not because he’s divisive, but because he’s dangerous.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency last Monday in advance of Spencer’s speech. The Governor even went so far as to activate the Florida National Guard for the event. All of this was on top of $500,000 the university had to expend to ensure its students’ safety. And what was Spencer’s financial contribution to all of this? A “lavish” $10,564 to help with security if needed.

Massive expenditures and military protection aren’t unique to Spencer’s UF visit. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe also issued a state of emergency the day the Unite the Right Rally took place in Charlottesville. Spencer considered the proclamation an offense to his freedom of expression.

“That was basically a means for suppressing the rally,” Spencer told ABC News in an interview earlier this month.

Yet in neither instance did the issuance of a state of emergency suppress his speech in the same way his supporters attempted to suppress protesters.

Police arrested three of Spencer’s proponents last Thursday for shooting a handgun toward a small crowd of protesters outside the white nationalist’s event. All three were charged with attempted homicide, with one receiving an additional charge of being a felon in possession of a weapon. The three Texas natives were purportedly leading chants that praised Hitler before exiting their car and threatening to kill affronted onlookers, according to Gainesville Police.

It’s clear that Spencer’s rhetorical style hasn’t changed in the few weeks since the day I watched my 89-year-old grandpa try to rationalize the hatred he and his supporters displayed so openly on television. What did change, though, was the public response.

Protesters were peaceful and unabating in their messages of love. They drowned out Spencer’s speech with boos and even chartered a plane to scrawl the message “love will prevail” in the sky above the Phillips Center.

“It was inspirational to see that the University of Florida could come together like that,” Pitt junior molecular biology major Kaylee Williams said. Williams transferred to Pitt from the University of Florida this semester. “But it’s not indicative of a lack of racism on campus. That’s something we still struggle with in most places.”

The First Amendment does protect hate speech so long as it doesn’t disturb the general peace or endanger the public. So at what point do civil liberties begin to impede on civil rights?

For me, that point came in August when Spencer’s rhetoric galvanized a horde of torch-wielding white men in Charlottesville to threaten everyone who does not look, speak or worship as they do. That point came when protesters of the Unite the Right Rally responded to political opponents with physical violence. For me, that point came when 32-year-old activist Heather Heyer was plowed down by a car and killed for her beliefs.

Apparently, the administration at the University of Florida has yet to reach that point. But it’s a point that we, as a society, need to strive toward.

Freedom of speech is no longer free when that price tag begins to compromise people’s safety.

Jaime primarily writes about social and environmental issues for The Pitt News.

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Spencer’s free speech fails to further dialogue