WASHINGTON — Florida’s governor has declared a state of emergency, the University of Florida has spent half a million dollars in security fees and various left-wing political groups have planned large protests in preparation for a far-right speaker — the latest episode in a national debate regarding free speech for controversial figures on college campuses.
The extreme measures being taken in Florida are the result of Richard Spencer, head of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, demanding the opportunity to speak after he threatened legal action when the school denied him a forum in September.
The university’s acquiescence has prompted a variety of student groups such as No Nazis at UF to announce their intent to “shut down” the event.
“We must not allow fascists to have a public platform,” No Nazis at UF wrote on Facebook. “We must stand together in the fight against white supremacy and fascism, and defend the most marginalized of our communities.”
Some left-wing groups argue that the controversy isn’t about curtailing free speech but about preventing speakers whose messages they believe could incite racially or politically motivated violence.
“Free speech? That’s a cover; that’s an excuse,” said Sunsara Taylor, an organizer with Refuse Fascism. “Free speech is being used to normalize things that should never be normalized, things that are destroying lives and need to be stopped.”
But for Evan McLaren, executive director of Spencer’s National Policy Institute, free speech is central to the debate, and the real threat of violence comes from the left.
“Just look at our activity– it’s just speaking. I’ve paid attention to these left-wing arguments and they’re all similar,” said McLaren. “They say that if they sense a threat, they’re within their right to shut that speech down.
“I invite them to consider whether they think their own speech is a threat. When the left does an event by itself, there’s often violence,” he said.
Some academics argue that canceling university events like Spencer’s threatens the academic freedoms that universities should stand for.
“Free speech used to be a cause of the left,” said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. “The left has now become the source of the greatest challenges to free speech.”
In 2017, 11 speakers were disinvited from appearing on various college campuses, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free speech advocacy group. The foundation attributed all 11 rescinded invitations to left-wing protests.
Turley said disinviting speakers “comes with a loss of academic freedom.” He said professors have told him that they fear substantial student backlash for inviting controversial conservative speakers.
Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, said that the AAC&U supports an individual’s right to speak at the university, unless there is an imminent threat of danger.
“We advocate for liberal education, which is based on the notion that we need to consider the possibility that some of one’s most fundamental beliefs are wrong,” she said.
Pasquerella also said that protestors have a right to engage in civil discourse and “shout down,” a speaker, particularly when a speaker shares values inconsistent with that of the institution.
“The values are the values of the institution, related to diversity, equity and a non-hostile learning environment,” she said. “Freedom of expression as a value must be weight in relation to these, and one might say that a speaker’s perspective is inconsistent with an institution’s mission and values,”
Taylor of Refuse Fascism said that the act of protesting was essential to higher education, saying that students may learn more from the controversy arising from canceling or protesting speakers than from the speakers themselves. “Students never learn of the news until people defy rules and disrupt normalcy,” she said.
Spencer seems to embrace the controversy and precautions surrounding his upcoming speech. In an interview with CNN, Spencer said that the governor declaring his speech a state of emergency put him on the same level as hurricanes and zombie apocalypses.
He posted a tweet with his face in the eye of a hurricane approaching Florida, calling himself “Hurricane Ricardo.”
Some groups have already begun protesting on campus in anticipation of Thursday’s “storm.” About 100 protesters with No Nazis at UF have gathered Monday to condemn Spencer, chanting “Block Nazis, not students.”
McLaren said Spencer is prepared no matter how disruptive the protests become.
“We of course want the event to go smoothly and Richard to speak without issues,” McLaren said. “But if there do end up being protests, we’ll do what we can do to spin it positively.”