In an ironic twist, Neo-Nazi and “free speech advocate” Richard Spencer has been given complete control over which journalists get to cover his speech at the University of Florida on Thursday.
Reporters who had signed up to cover Spencer’s event received an email on Wednesday from the University telling them that “all media credentialing decisions are made by the NPI,” which refers to the National Policy Insitute, a Neo-Nazi think-tank run by Spencer where he writes, among other things that immigration is a “proxy war — and maybe a last stand — for White Americans”.
Here's the email the University of Florida sent this morning to journalists signed up to cover Richard Spencer's speech on their campus. pic.twitter.com/sEhcUe2xve
— Lois Beckett (@loisbeckett) October 18, 2017
“This is not a University of Florida event, this is not a public event,” University of Florida spokesperson Janine Sikes said. “The National Policy Institute gets to make the decision on whether it’s public and gets to make the decision on media.” She added that 100 reporters will be allowed inside, including four from the New York Times, while others who can’t fit within the hall can be allowed past security to wait outside.
Spencer, unlike many of his white nationalist allies, is extremely media friendly and seems to be following Roger Stone’s mantra that “all publicity is good publicity”. He is regularly quoted by outlets like Washington Post. After the election, Mother Jones wrote a 5,000 word profile of Spencer, calling him “dapper” — a description which was fiercely criticized. “We’re obviously going to preference mainstream journalists [for the University of Florida event],” Spencer told the Guardian. “That’s the best way to communicate with people. I love mainstream liberals. Those are my favorite journalists.”
However, the vetting decision raises questions with regard to the University of Florida, which has allowed Spencer both the public benefit of free speech and the private benefit of vetting who gets to see, and report on, Spencer’s speech. It raises the possibility that this example could be used as a precedent by Spencer to restrict who can cover his events.
The school seems to have adopted a hands-off approach to Spencer’s speech on campus, relenting under the threat of legal action. “As a state entity, UF must allow the free expression from speaking in our public forums except for limited exceptions, which include safety and security,” the University explained. “No one at UF invited Richard Spencer. No one at UF is sponsoring this event and UF is not hosting Mr Spencer.”
— Ramsey Touchberry (@ramsberry1) October 18, 2017
“I can only imagine that the goal is not to entangle the university in the management of the event,” Frank LoMonte, of the university’s Joseph L Brenchner Center for Freedom of Information, said. “Once you’re turning the space over completely to a private lessor, then unless the contract provides otherwise, the university can and I guess does relinquish control over the event.”
Spencer has a legitimate First Amendment claim to controlling ticketing for the event, since protestors could conceivably buy all of them and then drown out Spencer’s right to speak. However the claim that there is a First Amendment right to media credentialing is much more spurious, since the right to free speech does not imply the right to be received positively by those listening.
Nonetheless, state officials are trying to avoid repeating the deadly mistakes made at the Charlottesville Unite The Right rally — which Spencer also helped organize. Governor Rick Scott declared a State of Emergency on Monday, and ordered the National Guard to be on standby to help keep the peace between Spencer’s supporters and counter-protesters. The University is picking up the tab for the extra security on campus, which will cost a minimum of $500,000.
“We live in a country where everyone has the right to voice their opinion, however, we have zero tolerance for violence and public safety is always our number one priority,” Governor Rick Scott said in a statement. “This executive order is an additional step to ensure that the University of Florida and the entire community is prepared so everybody can stay safe.”