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Monday, Nov 20, 2017
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Editorial: UF can set example for free speech

White nationalist Richard Spencer is bringing his racist message Thursday to the University of Florida in a legitimate, if utterly repugnant, display of the First Amendment at work. As a public university, UF has little choice but to allow Spencer's speech to take place. Now the university and the broader community has an opportunity to show the nation it can safely host even the most repulsive speaker, provide an opportunity for others to offer opposing views and reaffirm the commitment to free speech.

Spencer, 39, is head of the National Policy Institute, which advocates for white people to maintain their European heritage and rejects racial equality and the value of diversity. In August, the group's "Unite the Right" rally at the University of Virginia drew hundreds of torch-bearing white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members in a stunningly naked display of racism and hatred. Violence broke out and one woman died. Soon after, Spencer sought permission to speak at UF about white identity and the events in Charlottesville. Officials initially rejected his request, but a public university cannot censor free expression of ideas, even ones as vile as Spencer's.

Under threat of a lawsuit, UF officials rightly reversed course, set Spencer's speech for Thursday and began making security preparations. The logistics appear sound. The event is scheduled for 2:30 p.m., dampening the potential for violent confrontations under cover of darkness. UF is hosting a virtual assembly to allow students to air their views simultaneously with Spencer's speech. Some communal facilities on campus will close early, and access to other buildings will be restricted to those with student ID cards. Gov. Rick Scott on Monday declared a state of emergency in Alachua County, a prudent pre-emptive move that allows extra state resources to be marshaled ahead of the event.

The school, and ultimately taxpayers, even have to foot the bill for the extra security, estimated to be $500,000. UF is bound by a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision that says the government cannot charge speakers for security costs related to the potential reaction to a speech. So Spencer's group had to pay to rent the assembly hall and for security inside, but it does not have to pay more just because his words are likely to spark protests. "Speech cannot be financially burdened," former Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, "any more than it can be punished or banned simply because it might offend a hostile mob." This is the cost of democracy in action.

Richard Spencer is not the kind of nationally known speaker UF officials like to showcase. His espousal of white identity and separation of the races doesn't reflect the values of the university or this diverse state. But like all Americans, he is free to express himself. By accommodating him, UF has demonstrated that the right to free speech applies to everyone. By responding with peaceful protests and refusing to be provoked into violence, UF and the Gainesville community can provide a powerful repudiation of Spencer's hateful message.

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