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Controversial Speaker Attracting Worry, Curiosity On UF Campus

Oct 18, 2017

Vibhor Nayar spends most of his time at the University of Florida studying mechanical engineering.

But as president of the UF Indian American Student Association, the senior from Fort Lauderdale is distracted by Thursday’s expected arrival of a white nationalist group on the Gainesville campus.

He’s been speaking a lot with other minority students, who feel a visit from Richard Spencer and his group - - the National Policy Institute - could promote hate speech on a campus they call home. The speech comes just two months after violent protests erupted at the University of Virginia, following a march led by his group.

Vibhor Nayar, president of the UF Indian American Student Association
Credit Amaury Sablon

“What worries me is that I’ve had people come up to me that were international students, that were local Indian students and that were Muslim students, and they’ve all told me they don’t feel a sense of home here or they don’t feel a sense of belonging here,” Nayar said. “They don’t feel safe here.”

Spencer said the UF campus of 50,000 students is just the latest public university his group is visiting. The National Policy Institute, he said, is non-violent. And he’s coming to promote White identity politics - an anti-immigrant philosophy that believes White Americans are superior to other ethnic groups.

There are students on the UF campus who support Spencer’s right to promote controversial ideas, as his words are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The support comes from students like, Dan Elken, a second-year chemistry student from Baltimore.

The 19-year-old described himself as a Conservative Libertarian. And while he said he disagrees with White Nationalism, he is still considering attending Spencer’s speech.

“I would like to go. It’s just something that as a politically conscious and active individual that I’d at least like to witness,” he said.

But Elken does appears to be in the minority. In fact, the university’s administration is reluctantly allowing Spencer to rent space at the Curtis M. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts - and only after a lawsuit was threatened. That’s because Spencer’s group - or any other - can’t be denied the opportunity to speak on a public university campus.

Phillips Center for Performing Arts, Gainesville
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Officials, who have created an extensive website explaining their position, said they have no choice to allow the speech to take place, and that UF will be spending about $500,000 on security for the event at the 800-seat center on the western edge of campus. 

“Our idea of a perfect event would be that no one would show up and no media would cover the event,” UF Spokeswoman Janine Sikes said.

The event will be getting the same level of security as seen at Gator home football games, but the security will be spread across the Gainesville campus. The increased security means students who will be attending class may have to show identification to get into some campus buildings.

Second-year student Kasia Wiech is taking up the university’s offer to allow students the choice to attend class the day of Spencer’s speech. The physics major from Coral Springs said she plans to protest because his group’s ideology makes her remember relatives in Poland who died during the Holocaust.

“If I didn’t stand up against something like that I don’t think I could live with myself,” she said.

Weich will be joining a protest outside Spencer’s speech that is planned to coincide with the event, including some that cropped up on facebook, back when Spencer initially asked to speak in Gainesville.

That request in August came just days after the National Policy Institute led a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia to challenge the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. That rally led to violent clashes between White Nationalists and counter protesters, and the death of a woman peacefully protesting Spencer’s group.

UF President Ken Fuchs denied Spencer’s first request citing the violence. But later, the university acquiesced, saying it would be unconstitutional to permanently ban Spencer from campus and that it would consider a different date to allow him to speak.

Mitch Emerson is one of the protest organizers watching the Spencer story for months. Emerson said he is working with local groups, and is encouraging carpools and charter buses to come to Gainesville from all over the state.

“My expectation is that there will be a lot of us. Significantly more of us than them,” he said. “And we will make our voices heard and we will make it clear that type of white supremacist ideology is not supported.”

An estimated 700 tickets will be handed out for Spencer’s speech, while another 100 will be distributed to the media. Initially, UF was going to handle it, but that changed after people started talking about getting tickets and throwing them away, or using them for free drinks at a local bar.

Amaury Sablon is a student at the University of Florida in Gainesville and is a reporter for WUFT News.