On Aug. 12—in the morning, before the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly—Gainesville learned that white nationalist Richard Spencer requested to come speak in September at UF.
On the Facebook event page that leaked the news, hundreds of commenters expressed fear and outrage. But the truth wasn’t confirmed until later that day—after a man drove his car into a crowd of people protesting the alt-right demonstration in Charlottesville, killing one and injuring 34—via the first of many emails from President Kent Fuchs.
The email characterized Spencer and his organization, the National Policy Institute, as deeply disturbing but submitted that UF has an obligation to uphold its mission of free speech and inclusion.
Four days later, after consulting with state, local and university police departments, President Fuchs announced via email that Spencer’s request was denied on security grounds. He emphasized that it was not Spencer’s “words or ideas” that caused the university to refuse him.
But after Spencer threatened to sue the university, UF agreed to meet with his representatives to discuss a new date for him to speak on campus.
In a letter to Spencer’s attorney, UF General Counsel Amy Hass wrote that it was never the intention of the university to permanently ban Spencer from campus.
Meanwhile, Sept. 12, the original date Spencer was planned to speak, looms closer. Spencer has made it clear he intends to deny UF’s ban, and online posts were found on 4chan in which his supporters threatened to turn Gainesville into a “battlefield.”
Campus security is important, but what UF and President Fuchs fail to recognize when they minimize Spencer’s “words or ideas” is that the expression of white supremacy doesn’t merely precipitate physical violence—it is, in itself, violent.
The past year has seen incidents of hate increase in Gainesville and on campus. A man trespassed in Walker Hall, home to the African American and Jewish departments, and shouted racist sentiments at faculty. In a separate incident, the building’s sign was knocked over. Racist messages were scrawled on classroom blackboards; a noose was found in the classroom in Weimar Hall.
After a man bearing a swastika stood in Turlington Plaza in late January, Sid Dobrin, the chair of the English department, said he found anti-semitic messages carved into his door.
“I had faculty in here saying, ‘What do we do? What do we do?’ One of the things that doesn’t get talked about is that I had faculty coming in saying, ‘I keep getting people writing anti-semitic things on my door. My office door down here has become a site for people to leave anti-Jewish messages,” he said.
Dobrin was among the students and faculty who protested 34-year-old Michael Dewitz in late January. Photos from that day show him standing next to Dewitz, his arms crossed, scowling. It took four hours of increasing tension between counter-protesters and Dewitz for him to finally leave campus.
Spencer’s attorney, local First Amendment lawyer Gary Edinger, said that it’s UF’s responsibility to prevent violence from counter-protests.
“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.”
This is what campus police did last January, when they refused to remove Dewitz. As Dobrin wrote in a letter to the Alligator after the incident, this gave the swastika “both a place and police protection right in the heart of our campus.”
The inaction by campus police is university policy. UF spokesperson Janine Sikes said that the university rarely cancels speaking requests and would never remove someone based on the content of their speech.
Event requests always go through a series of people to make sure UF can accommodate the event, she said.
“We don’t know what the goal of the individual or the group asking for space is, maybe they need space for 10 or 200,” Sikes said. “So one of our roles is to make sure they’re in an appropriate place for what they’re trying to do.”
That’s not been the experience of every group requesting to speak on campus, however.
In October 2013, activists from Earth First!, a radical environmental organization, traveled on a speaking tour of the southeast called “The Growing Threat: Genetically Engineered Trees and the Future of Forests.” Aiming to to educate the public on genetically modified trees and the threat their monoculture poses to biodiversity, Earth First! toured uninterrupted—until they came to UF.
According to a 2013 Gainesville Sun article, the activists booked a conference room through a student sponsor in the McKnight Brain Institute on Sept. 30, a month in advance. The reservation was confirmed via email by the MBI.
Four days before they were scheduled to speak, the student sponsor received an email from the MBI that the reserved space was now unavailable.
An email exchange ensued. The MBI said it needed to give priority to “brain and neuroscience-related functions.” The student sponsor responded that they had put a lot of work into the event and had emailed everyone in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation. To this, the MBI responded that the AV equipment in the room wasn’t working. In a final email, the student sponsor asked if all four available rooms in the Institute were experiencing technical difficulties—and pointed out that no conflicting brain or neuroscience-related function was scheduled—but they never received a response.
The Saturday prior to their scheduled date, the activists decided to see if the room really was experiencing technical difficulties, said Rachel Kijewski, an organizer with Earth First!.
“The only thing we wanted to do was talk to someone to confirm to ourselves that they were not lying to us,” she said.
Kijewski said that five minutes after they arrived, they were greeted by campus police, issued a trespass warning and banned from campus for three years.
Research on genetically modified trees is particularly profitable for the university. The citrus industry in Florida is worth 10 billion dollars, and the School of Forest Resources and Conservation brings the university millions each year.
Sikes said that UF was prepared to move the speaking event until the group was removed from campus; however, Kijewski said they never received an email indicating the university was willing to negotiate with them.
“We were providing a view that was not welcome on campus,” Kijewski said.
“I doubt that Richard Spencer is going to get a trespass ban for three years from the campus,” she added later.
After reading Fuchs’ initial email, Wesley Bivins, a Gainesville resident, found himself walking to Tigert Hall, UF’s administration building. He was so angry he didn’t realize it was a Saturday.
“I was, I don’t want to say incandescent with rage, because that gives you the wrong image,” he said. “I can be calm in the midst of the maelstrom, but I really wanted to give somebody a piece of my mind after reading that letter.”
Unable to talk to President Fuchs, he decided to organize a march—one of the many actions organized against Spencer—to prevent Spencer from coming to campus. It was cancelled after Spencer’s request was initially denied.
“What happened in Charlottesville is deplorable, and we should not have to see anything like that here,” he said. “I don’t want to get there. I don’t want that to happen. I’d like to see it stopped, please. … This is like our community, these are all of our neighbors, everybody has a stake.”
Bivins was not the only one who sought to speak with President Fuchs that day. After reading Fuch’s first email, Dobrin said he wrote to him immediately.
“I encouraged him to say, ‘yes, this is the law, I support the law, I’m gonna break the law,’ and own up to it,” he said. “Take the penalty. If we look historically, at how many people have done what is right when it was in opposition to the law, that’s when change occurs.”
Learning that Spencer might come to campus brought the day Dewitz came to campus—and the turmoil it produced—back for Dobrin. For weeks after the event, his office was filled with students and faculty who were seeking guidance.
“There have been lots of people who have come here looking for some sort of better guidance for what do we do in situations like that,” he said, referring to his office, which overlooks the part of Turlington where Dewitz stood. “What do we do after? They don’t just end for a lot of us,” he said.
President Fuchs was away from campus the day Dewitz stood in Turlington; he wasn’t there to speak with the students who went to his office in tears to ask him to act. Instead, those who visited Tigert Hall were given the number for U Matter, We Care, and told the line we’ve heard too many times by now: It doesn’t matter that Nazism caused the death of millions. If someone wants to wear the swastika, it’s their freedom of speech.
“When we see the Nazi symbol, we tend to immediately turn to the 6 million Jews and then the 10 million count with the eradication of g*psies, homosexuals, intellectuals,” Dobrin said. “But there’s another number we don’t talk about, and that’s the 405,000 Americans who died fighting against the ideology of the Nazis.”
This issue affects too many on campus for Spencer, and his inevitable rally, to come here.
In his email to Fuchs after the initial announcement, Dobrin wrote that it doesn’t matter what the ramifications are, President Fuchs should deny Spencer because he is a Nazi.
“It is about the words,” he said. “Words, language, these are the most powerful things we have.” •
A counter-protest has been planned to begin at 2 p.m. on Sept. 12 in the Plaza of the Americas. If you’d like to join, you can find more details here.
While The Fine Print encourages everyone to protest, we want to make sure we remind you to please do so safely. If Spencer (or Hurricane Irma) come to Gainesville, please make sure to take care of your safety and well-being.