First Amendment

The latest on court fight over white nationalist speech (or lack of it) at UF

Representatives of Richard Spencer and the National Policy Institute are trying to work with the University of Florida to finalize a speech in less than two weeks, but the prospects are grim, according to First Amendment lawyer Gary Edinger.

Edinger represents Spencer, NPI and Cameron Padgett, a Georgia State University student who’s involved in bringing Spencer, a leader in the “alt-right” movement, to the Gainesville campus.

The university rejected the request after a deadly outburst following a “Unite the Right” rally earlier this month in Charlottesville. One person died when a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, and two Virginia state troopers also died in a helicopter crash while monitoring the situation.

Edinger said today he’s been in contact with the university in an attempt to avoid taking UF to court over Spencer’s speech.

In a letter to UF general counsel Amy Hass sent Thursday, Edinger asked if there was “any possibility of resolving this dispute short of Federal litigation.”

Edinger said his clients were willing to be flexible regarding the times and even possible date of the event.

But, he warned, “the university’s principal obligation in this regard is to ensure order so that the speech may go forward.”

In a telephone interview Thursday, Edinger remained skeptical that a lawsuit could be avoided.

“I have no idea if the university is actually interested in having this conversation. I’m interested in it. Although I litigate for living, it’s not a good way to solve problems,” the First Amendment lawyer said in a telephone interview.

Edinger acknowledged that “there are legitimate security concerns” about Spencer’s appearance, which was supposed to take place on Sept. 12.

But, he said, that doesn’t mean the university has the right to quash the speech.

“There are a range of possibilities here and what I’m trying to do is kind of the responsible thing and see if something can’t be worked out in advance and without litigation. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but I’m giving it the old college try, if you’ll forgive the pun,” he said.

The likelihood of an amicable settlement seems to have dwindled, based on a memo distributed by University of Florida President Kent Fuchs yesterday:

“Dear Gator community:

Due to the threat of violence, the University of Florida denied two weeks ago a request by the National Policy Institute to rent space for a Sept. 12 event for white nationalist Richard Spencer.

We were informed late this afternoon that representatives of the organization have retained legal counsel and plan to pursue efforts to hold this event as originally requested.

No formal complaint has been filed at this time. We are prepared to vigorously defend our decision. The safety of our students, faculty and staff is our highest priority.

Our university police department has been working closely with local, state and federal agencies over the last few weeks and will continue to do so.

We understand some media organizations have been told there is a contract between the university and the National Policy Institute for the event. No contract was ever executed.

We are committed to keeping you updated as we receive new information. In addition, UF’s information line at 1-866-UF-FACTS (833-2287) may also be a resource.”

The violence in Charlottesville may have created security issues for UF, but his clients are not responsible for picking up the tab, Edinger said.

“The nature of speech is topical and we don’t have a long attention span in America. This is a topical thing right now so eyeballs are glued to television screens,” he said. My client is really the First Amendment. Politically and socially I have nothing in common with my clients but they have a right to speak.”