University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, citing serious concerns about the safety and security of students, last week denied a white nationalist leader’s request to rent space for a speech on the campus.
Fuchs’ decision, which was a surprise reversal from just days prior, was understandable.
It was also right.
We don’t come to this decision lightly. As an editorial board, we, especially, cherish our country’s free-speech protections. And we believe that colleges and universities should welcome a free exchange of ideas — no matter how unpopular or offensive.
But the First Amendment is not absolute. It is not OK to shout “fire” in a crowded theater, and it is not OK for heavily armed, torch-bearing white supremacists to use the cover of free speech to threaten and intimidate other groups of Americans. When the likely results of such a rally are the violence we saw in Charlottesville, Va., we’re no longer talking about free speech. We’re talking about incitement.
Although many branches of the American Civil Liberties Union are supporting the hate groups’ right to speak, we side with the ACLU of Northern California, which said last week: “If white supremacists march into our towns armed to the teeth and with the intent to harm people, they are not engaging in activity protected by the United States Constitution. The First Amendment should never be used as a shield or sword to justify violence.”
Fuchs originally sent an email to staff last weekend, alerting them that Richard Spencer, an “alt-right” leader who appeared at the Charlottesville event, might speak at the university on Sept. 12.
“While this speaker’s views do not align with our values as an institution,” Fuchs said in the email, “we must follow the law, upholding the First Amendment not to discriminate based on content and provide access to a public space.”
Fuchs acted correctly, in our judgment. He was guided by a landmark 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case that allowed a neo-Nazi march through the largely Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill.
Also, four months ago, a federal court judge ruled that Auburn University could not deny Spencer his right to spew hate because the university presented “no evidence that Mr. Spencer advocates violence.”
But in the Skokie case, the Nazi group didn’t ostentatiously carry guns as they chanted slogans about “taking our country back.” They never triggered melees like that which led to the horrific death in Charlottesville of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injury to 19 others. Melees all but sanctioned by the President of the United States, whose insistence on casting “blame on both sides” has emboldened white supremacist groups to stage more provocational rallies and demonstrations.
That makes the UF case different. By Wednesday morning, Fuchs reversed himself, telling staff that he was denying Spencer’s request to rent space on campus “after assessing potential risks” with campus, state, local and federal law enforcement officials.
He said a factor in his decision were calls “online and in social media for similar violence in Gainesville, such as those decreeing: ‘The Next Battlefield is Florida.’ ”
Events to protest Spencer’s appearance were underway. At the same time, posts on an internet thread used by white supremacists approvingly mentioned Florida’s “stand your ground” law, implying that gun violence would be exonerated in court.
UF and other universities should not adopt polices barring such hate groups forever. The institutions should adopt policies that set stricter ground rules such determining venue, timing and security requirements. That will help make sure the groups’ First Amendment rights are not infringed upon in the future.
But we are at a flashpoint now. One where the deep wounds of Charlottesville are still too fresh and painful.
Cameron Padgett, a Georgia resident coordinating with Spencer, told The News Service of Florida they are working with attorneys and plan to file a lawsuit challenging Fuchs’ decision.
Even if UF loses in court, Fuchs should be applauded for recognizing the current climate’s unusually heightened risk to the safety of students and faculty.
But in the Skokie case, the Nazi group didn’t ostentatiously carry guns as they chanted slogans about “taking our country back.”