Chenetrice Simpson doesn’t know what to tell her mom.
Simpson, a UF criminology and law and African American studies freshman, said she’s fearful of what will happen when Richard Spencer, an avowed white supremacist, will speak on campus Oct. 19. She feels UF could have done more to stop him from coming.
“What do I tell my mom if I don’t come home in one piece?,” the 18-year-old said.
After weeks of back-and-forth, UF announced Spencer will officially be speaking at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, despite an initial block from the university. UF President Kent Fuchs has said in statements that Spencer is legally allowed to speak because of his First Amendment right.
On Wednesday night, about 300 students gathered in the Reitz Union Rion Ballroom to discuss the First Amendment. A panel of experts included Paul Ortiz, a professor and director of UF’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program; Clay Calvert, a UF journalism professor and First Amendment specialist; and Kenneth Nunn, a UF law professor. The event was hosted by Multicultural and Diversity Affairs.
Fuchs, who attended the panel, said he’s been learning more about the First Amendment in the past two months. He said the forum was a good way for people in town to speak about the upcoming event.
The day of Spencer’s visit, Together UF, a new student initiative, will hold a virtual assembly for people to share their thoughts.
“This is what’s healthy,” Fuchs said. “Looking at issues based on research and scholarship, and secondly, expressing support.”
Nunn, an African-American man, called himself a First Amendment radical. He said free speech is never free – people pay a cost for what they have to say, like Colin Kaepernick.
He said the goal of people like Spencer is to normalize their hateful speech, which should be resisted. He does not feel Spencer or others should be able to present hate speech, especially on a college campus dedicated to learning.
“We should undermine this philosophy and this worldview that, oh, it’s an even playing field and everybody should be able to come and give hateful speech,” he said.
Calvert said UF is held to the First Amendment as a public university. UF cannot discriminate against speakers based on their viewpoints, he said.
He said he doesn’t defend Spencer’s viewpoint, but thinks it’s within Spencer right to speak up until he directly threatens with violence.
“It’s one thing to defend somebody’s right to speak and another thing to defend what they actually believe in,” Calvert said.
Calvert said a 1992 Supreme Court case ruled you cannot shift the cost of an event – like Fuchs’s now-estimated $600,000 to be spent on security – to the speaker.
Ortiz asked the audience to think about what the First Amendment means to different individuals, including workers and people of color. Ortiz opposes the event and said his have approached him with tears in their eyes, begging him to try to stop the event.
“We are surrounded, again, by residential neighborhoods,” he said. “We are surrounded by small shops and small businesses. And any event we have on campus is going to affect those communities.”
One student at the event, Nicole Hazlett, questioned why the free speech argument seems to be used to support white people and not black people.
“Why do we only cry free speech when it’s a white man with a torch and not a black man with his knee on the ground and his fist in the air?” the 19-year-old UF plant science sophomore said.
Hazlett said she’ll be protesting the day of the event, despite Fuchs’s email encouraging students to stay away.
“I think it’s a nice sentiment that if you don’t give someone attention that they won't have an impact, but I think if people that are opposed to him don’t show up, people who want to hear it will show up, and he’ll essentially have a free opportunity for recruitment,” she said.