Op-Ed: The price of Richard Spencer

Sunday, October 29, 2017 - 11:56pm

Half of a million dollars is the kind of spending money any rational individual could change their life with. In the hands of a top-notch university, this is no different. The federal and state funding public colleges receive — keeping in mind their nonprofit nature — is funneled to their financial aid offices, research programs and campus facilities, among other departments, and allows for one of the most valuable public goods to operate and, in effect, better the livelihoods of a significant fraction of the populace. So why was it acceptable that the University of Florida had to reluctantly draw $500,000 out of its budget to host an uninvited guest? 

I understand the University of Florida is public and must allow free speech in this manner as it would with, say, student demonstrations on campus in regard to controversial policies and international crises. However, it is rather exceptional for the anticipated presence of a single individual to ignite the same response from the state as was given in preparation for Hurricane Irma, the recent Category 5 mega-storm that hit Florida in September. U-F President Ken Fuchs himself sent out an email to the student body voicing his disapproval regarding the upcoming event. Further, a Facebook event page dubbed “No Nazis at UF,” which has garnered over seven thousand “interested” users, was created to outline general behavior guidelines in order to keep demonstrations from escalating into conflict. The University of Florida clearly did not want to welcome Spencer onto its campus.

The debate over free speech must occur at this point. To what extent are public universities, which are designed to be welcoming nodes of diversity and intellectual discussion, expected to expend resources to protect the First Amendment rights of individuals and groups whose words foment hatred and ignorance and often stir up violence?       

The National Policy Institute, an “alt-right” think tank based in Virginia, booked the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts — an on-campus venue — for a "speaking event" that was led by its president, the popularly detestable Richard Spencer.

Spencer, charming as he is, has grown to become one of the leading figureheads in the ever so developing white nationalist movement, which has made itself salient to the American, and even global, audience in past months, specifically after the horrifically chaotic Charlottesville, Va., rallies in August. Though he denies allegations of racism, Spencer has gone on the record to say that, in regard to his advocacy for a white America, “Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans;” in a separate internet spiel, if I may, Spencer wrote: “(T)he Holocaust is all about the Jews. It is all about their meta-narrative of suffering, and it shall undergird their peculiar position in American society, and theirs alone.”

Expectedly, when the organization first approached the University of Florida, the administration quickly denied its request to rent any facility for the evidently anti-Semitic, xenophobic and anti-Black speaker. However, Spencer’s legal threats and constitutional backing (see the First Amendment) gave the university no choice but to permit his visit, and thus to bear the hefty cost of providing security for the mayhem that might very well arise in a similar fashion to his University of Virginia trip. Florida Gov. Rick Scott even declared a state of emergency to properly prepare and keep the people and students of Gainesville protected from the likelihood of violent confrontation.

Spencer’s voice does not contribute to an intellectual discussion, it demeans it. The University of Florida did not want to divert $500,000 away from its budget to host him, but because Spencer’s threat of litigation was credible and likely to succeed if carried out in court, the school’s wishes were irrelevant.

As consistently applicable and generally effective as the Constitution has proven itself to be over the years, it has been the role of the Supreme Court to interpret and modify gaps and errs in the understandings of each right and liberty guaranteed in the Bill of Rights; Schenck v. United States is an easy case to point to for precedence regarding free speech revisions. The power to decide whether hateful and racist speech is worth blowing half a million dollars to protect should be left to those who must bear the financial burden, in this case being the University of Florida.

Spencer will not fully reimburse the costs of security that the state and institution feel the need to pay in order to keep Gainesville safe and orderly. No, those costs will be paid by the University of Florida, which means the government, and by extension, the taxes of “We the People.” Are we willing to pay the price for Richard Spencer?

Cole Kauffman is an LSA freshman.