TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) - With the threat of a federal lawsuit looming, University of Florida officials said Friday they will consider allowing white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on campus.
The university's decision came after UF President Kent Fuchs last month rejected a request by “alt-right” leader Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, to appear Sept. 12 at a campus forum.
Fuchs cited security concerns in the wake of a deadly clash Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Va., in which a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Two Virginia state troopers also died in a helicopter crash while monitoring the situation.
On Thursday, Gainesville First Amendment lawyer Gary Edinger --- who represents Spencer, the institute and Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student who is an organizer of the proposed Gainesville event --- threatened to take UF to court if Spencer was barred from speaking.
“My clients are not unmindful of UF's legitimate security concerns,” Edinger wrote. “I caution, however, that the university's principal obligation in this regard is to ensure order so that the speech may go forward.”
In a letter Friday to Edinger, UF interim vice president and general counsel Amy Hass wrote that the university was open to an appearance by Spencer.
“It was never the intention of the university to permanently bar Mr. Spencer from speaking at an appropriate time and location at one of the university's dedicated forums,” Hass wrote. “If Mr. Spencer or the National Policy Institute, Inc. makes another formal request for a speaking date and location, we will make appropriate efforts to accommodate it in a manner consistent with generally applicable university policies, including important safety and security assessments.”
Earlier this year, Auburn University paid $29,000 in legal fees for Padgett after he sued the school for denying Spencer the opportunity to speak.
Hass' overture appears to have put the possibility of a lawsuit on hold, at least for now.
“For the first time, UF is acknowledging that its public forums are available to all and that Mr. Spencer will be allowed to speak. That was not the message coming out of UF in previous weeks,” Edinger said in an email.
Edinger said he told the university that his clients will consider rescheduling Spencer's appearance “if given a date certain and acceptable assurances that the university will not `change its mind.' “
Hass' invitation to reapply appears to be a reversal of Fuchs' position as late as two days ago, expressed in a memo distributed to university staff after learning of the potential lawsuit.
“We are prepared to vigorously defend our position. The safety of our students, faculty and staff is our highest priority,” Fuchs wrote.
Last month, Fuchs said the decision to deny the National Policy Institute's request to rent space on campus came “after assessing potential risks” with campus, state, local and federal law-enforcement officials.
Continued calls “online and in social medial for similar violence in Gainesville such as those decreeing: `The Next Battlefield is Florida' ” also played a role in the decision, Fuchs said.
Spencer, a controversial figure who has been an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, earned notoriety following a press conference where followers broke out in Nazi-like salutes in response to Spencer saying, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
In Friday's letter, Hass defended the university's decision to deny the request for the Sept. 12 speech, writing that the university believed its decision was “prudent and constitutional.”
“Any new request by Mr. Spencer will be treated in the ordinary course consistent with all other such requests,” she wrote, adding that the university is “committed to upholding the First Amendment right to free speech and civil discourse” and has “a history of hosting controversial speakers.”
Hass also said the university will “use the same careful deliberation and consideration of safety and security factors” when evaluating a new request for Spencer to speak.
The university's ability to restrict controversial figures like Spencer from appearing on campus is limited, even in the aftermath of the situation in Charlottesville, according to First Amendment lawyers.
“One could understand how he (Fuchs) would prefer not to see a repeat of that in Gainesville and prefer to see that they not come. But if they have opened the university's space for the public to use for meetings or speakers, then he literally can't say no simply because he disagrees with someone who asks to use the space,” Tom Julin, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment law, told The News Service of Florida last month. “Simply because there has been an incident of violence, that doesn't mean that speakers affiliated with that violence lose their right to speak. That's the last thing you want to do.”