As I write this at nearly 11 p.m. Thursday night, it has been only a few hours since racist Richard Spencer spoke on the University of Florida campus and failed miserably in his attempt to divide our community.
I am immensely proud of how the University of Florida and the Gainesville community turned a potentially dangerous situation into a peaceful outcome worthy of emulation elsewhere. The whole world was watching, and the whole world saw how we responded to a hateful and despicable bully.
It is worth noting, however, that this happened despite divisions over how we should respond. This presents an opportunity to consider some deeper issues related to hate speech, freedom of speech and financial burden and come up with some longer-term solutions.
We are united in our rejection of Spencer’s white supremacist message. We are divided on how his message can be effectively thwarted so that his movement does not gain in followers and momentum.
My position is that the protest strategies of the past do not thwart Mr. Spencer, but rather they provide the fuel on which his racism and white supremacy movement will blaze brighter and hotter. We need a new strategy, or we risk winning the local battle by shutting down his speech and chasing his followers out of town – yet losing the larger war for the hearts and minds of the public and his movement of racism and hate will grow.
First there is the issue of whether UF should and could have banned him from ever speaking on our campus. Had we done that, it would not have thwarted his movement, but it would have spared us from direct exposure to him and his followers. But this option was not possible. As long as we could provide reasonable security on our campus then we could not by law bar him from renting our facilities and speaking. Fighting him in court was not an option once there was a possibility of adequate security, despite the cost.
Could we have indirectly blocked Spencer from speaking by requiring him to pay the more than $600,000 in security costs, which provided nearly 1,000 law enforcement officers across our campus? Again, the answer is simply, no. This question was litigated and decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992 and is known as the legal doctrine of the “heckler’s veto.” As Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the Court in Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement, “[s]peech cannot be financially burdened, any more than it can be punished or banned....”
Although the answers to the first two issues are clear, an even more important issue remains. How can we thwart his white supremacist movement, not just for the few hours he was on campus, but forever?
I argue that the old strategies of protest, which include shutting down the speaker and chasing his followers out of town, are exactly what the white supremacist need to attract attention and followers to their movement. For Spencer and his ilk, I believe the right strategy is to 1) shun the speaker, his followers and his events, and 2) as loudly as possible, speak up with acts of inclusion and love and a message that rejects racism and white nationalism.
Let me provide a few examples.
Members of the Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Student Center headed by Rabbi Berl Goldman shunned Spencer and his event, and courageously held instead on Thursday a “Good Deed Marathon” on Turlington Plaza. Rabbi Berl said on Chabad.org, “Despite the negative energy that some people are bringing to our city on Thursday, it’s important that we do our part to counter that with random acts of love and kindness, which can chase away much of the darkness.”
UF students created #TogetherUF and held a Virtual Assembly about race relations and diversity at the same time as Spencer’s event. The Virtual Assembly had twice as many participants as tickets distributed for Spencer’s event. Those who attended the virtual assembly were shunning Mr. Spencer and were instead discussing the values and truth that have the power to thwart his movement.
A plane flew over the Phillips Center trailing a banner saying “Love conquers hate! Love will prevail!” A mural on the 34th Street wall rendered the word “Diversity” in an American flag with stripes colored to represent people’s different skin colors. In Gainesville, children did diversity affirming chalk drawings on city sidewalks.
There are innumerable ways that students, faculty and staff have stood up to the white supremacists and their message with a counter message of love and inclusion that has the power to bring Spencer’s movement to an end. We are all, particularly me, learning how to most effectively counter evil with good. If you have thoughts, I would love to hear from you. My email is email@example.com. If you would like to discuss in person, please let me know.