White Nationalists and Free Speech

The conversations around free speech, hate speech and how those overlaps play into our first amendment rights have been a highly debated and heated topic in the last couple of years. Racial and cultural identities have always come with a heavy history and it is hard to deny that those identities continue to be used against nonwhite individuals. Whether divisive and controversial speech incites acts of violence against minorities and whether that speech should be censored or denied a platform continues to be a discussion in this country.

The events that began with an alt-right rally at the University of Virginia in August ended in violence and death in Charlottesville. One of the leaders of the alt-right movement and attendees of the rally, Richard Spencer, has been a topic of discussion, as his planned college campus tour hit some delays and finally began at the University of Florida this past Thursday. Planned to make an appearance at the university in September, delays occurred because of the aftermath of Charlottesville and the possible danger his appearance would cause. Known for his ideas of creating a “white ethno-state”, one of the faces of the white supremacist movement, Spencer’s presence was first denied at the university. Through the veil of the first amendment’s freedom of speech, Spencer has spent a lot of time threatening to sue state universities barring him from speaking. As state institutions, public universities are forced to give Spencer the space and the resources to speak freely. Through what is known as the heckler’s veto, Spencer could not and cannot be denied “the right to speak based on possible protest from those people who disagree with his message.” His offensive rhetoric not considered inciting of violence; speech that is inciting of violence could give a university the leverage to deny their platform to a speaker. The validity of these justifications have been questioned time and time again as confrontations between white nationalists and counter-protestors have turned violent.

Declaring himself a defender of freedom of speech, Spencer is able to receive the platform to spread his white supremacist ideologies, ideologies that have in fact led to violence and death (most recently in Charlottesville). The Miami Herald reported that three supporters of Spencer were arrested on charges of attempted murder at UF; harassing counter-protestors with Nazi chants and pulling out a gun and firing at the crowd, missing the group. Despite some of the effects that events like these have, the speech took place as planned. Preparations for Spencer’s arrival included Governor Scott declaring a state of emergency and the university and state shuffling out approximately $600,000 on security to defend Spencer and his supporters. On a mission to spread hateful ideas of “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and white superiority, Spencer might have gotten away with doing so under the protection of the first amendment but the community at large has not let him go on without fighting back. Inside the auditorium at the University of Florida where Spencer gave his speech, his supporters were outnumbered 10 to 1. Attendees made sure to declare their feelings toward his message and their disagreement. Outside the auditorium demonstrators gathered with chants and signs of unity and intolerance toward hate, some tensions among the crowd when Spencer’s supporters and counter-protestors met. Before Spencer’s arrival however, someone posted signs around the university with the simple but powerful message, “you are loved.”