By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
Far-right social media users offer a special lure for meeting at the University of Florida: the state’s broad “stand your ground” self-defense law.
After lengthy negotiations, white supremacist Richard Spencer will speak at the university’s Phillips Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 19. The date, finalized this week, was reported by a counter-protest group that is organizing online and confirmed by Spencer’s lawyer.
The university announced late Thursday that Spencer has signed a contract to pay $10,564 to rent the center and for security, the maximum he can be charged. The university, however, must pay “at least $500,000 to enhance security on campus and in the city of Gainesville,” according to its statement.
“Although UF leadership has denounced Spencer’s white supremacist rhetoric, the University, as a state entity, must allow the free expression of all viewpoints,” the statement says.
Concerns are rampant that the Gainesville campus may host a clash between extreme-right zealots and impassioned anti-fascists such as the deadly Aug. 12 rally at Charlottesville, VA.
A Facebook group called “No Nazis at UF” is calling for protests against Spencer’s speech. “We must not allow fascists to have a public platform. We must stand together in the fight against white supremacy and fascism, and defend the most marginalized of our communities,” the Facebook post states.
Responses show that 2,500 say they will attend, while another 6,500 say they are interested in the event.
UF President Kent Fuchs denied a rental permit to Spencer’s group, the National Policy Institute, shortly after Charlottesville. By then, university officials had processed the stand your ground enticement.
“Officials confirm that social media chatter is already underway, with profanity and threats being made to the point of referring to guns and Florida’s stand your ground law,” newstalkflorida.com reported on Aug. 14.
Battle lines being drawn
Those officials weren’t being paranoid.
“If there was a time for a false flag this would be it, you can basically open carry and pop someone for saying ‘I’m going to kill you,’” said a poster to a forum on 4Chan, a bulletin board for anonymous, anything-goes exchanges. The term “false flag” refers to covert operations that conceal the true identity of responsible parties.
References to stand your ground inspired blowback. CNN retweeted “Hearts in Spades@imler_chris” commenting on Fuchs’s decision: “Discussions about using stand your ground laws to kill counter-protesters. Safety of students who pay to go to this school is paramount.”
The university has no comment about stand your ground, spokesperson Margot Winick wrote in an emailed response to questions. She noted that under state law, firearms are prohibited on UF property unless they are “securely encased in vehicles, and with permits.”
Spencer’s Gainesville lawyer, First Amendment specialist Gary Edinger, said Spencer does not want to spark violence when he speaks at UF.
“No intention” to incite violence
“My client assures me they have no intention of direct incitement, they have every intention of speaking their minds,” he said. “I don’t think the possibility of violent protests by crazies is going to determine my client’s First Amendment right.”
Edinger said he didn’t know why the university postponed the gathering, first set for Sept. 12, but speculated that officials “still perceive feelings about Charlottesville as too raw. Perhaps they don’t want to dishonor the victim of Charlottesville,” referring to counter-protester Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed.
Spencer’s lawyer insists the Oct. 19 event will be a “speech.” But if those who are trying to attract a sympathetic crowd succeed, it will be a rally that will likely pit pro-Spencer attendees against anti-Spencer protesters.
Florida’s pioneering 2005 stand your ground law, touted as a model by the National Rifle Association, justifies the use of deadly force in order to protect oneself or others against threats of harm, either real or perceived. It eliminates the longstanding duty to retreat.
Controversy over the law peaked in 2013 when policeman wannabe George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17, setting off a nationwide debate over race and stand your ground. Attempts in Tallahassee to tighten or repeal the law failed repeatedly; meanwhile, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights investigated the law’s disparate impact on blacks and whites.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder condemned stand your ground for “senselessly expand[ing] the concept of self-defense” in a 2013 speech to the NAACP in Orlando.
This year Florida legislators strengthened the law, and critics attacked the revisions for unfairly tasking prosecutors and favoring defendants. “This expansion would place an enormous burden on our state’s hardworking prosecutors, and further create a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ culture,” Michelle Gajda of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America said before Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law, according to WUFT in Gainesville.
Stand your ground
This apparently is the first time the law, now widely used, is a factor in the national schism over racist and neo-Nazi activities. Whether marketing stand your ground as a tactic – like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater–could be used to deny free speech to a racist or a neo-Nazi, is untested in court and debatable.
Earlier this year, after Auburn University in Alabama tried to stop Spencer from speaking there, he asserted his First Amendment right in federal court and won. Outside the auditorium where he spoke on April 18, police clashed with demonstrators and made three arrests for disorderly conduct.
The tragedy of Charlottesville, where a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heyer and injuring 19 others, seems to have empowered other universities to deny Spencer a forum. In addition to UF, Texas A&M, Penn State and Michigan State University have resisted his appearance.
First Amendment scholar Robert O’Neil, a former University of Virginia president, said he’s no fan of the stand your ground law. He agrees with Holder that it adds nothing good to the idea of self-defense.
O’Neil said using the law to publicize an event that’s likely to turn violent should be irrelevant to the right to speak freely. Still, he said, after Charlottesville it would be “entirely appropriate that a judge would take stand your ground into account to decide that this constitutes a genuine threat of violence.”
“It just needs a good ACLU lawyer or someone willing to take on the issue,” O’Neil said. “It probably is not a popular position to take, but I think there are merits to taking another kind of stand your ground.”