University of Florida drew inspiration from UC Berkeley’s handling of ‘Free Speech Week’ for Richard Spencer event security

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Seeking guidance on security preparations, the University of Florida sent representatives to UC Berkeley during the now-canceled ‘Free Speech Week’ to formulate a plan for prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer’s appearance on the UF campus Thursday.

UCPD Sgt. Nicole Sanchez confirmed that during Free Speech Week, multiple campuses sent representatives to observe and learn from UC Berkeley’s crowd-control tactics. The UF Police Department, along with city of Gainesville officials, wanted to get a better understanding of what to expect from white nationalist protestors and Antifa protesters, according to UF spokesperson Janine Sikes.

Spencer has been a featured speaker for several controversial right-wing events, including the Charlottesville demonstrations in August that resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Rosana Resende, a Latin American studies professor at UF, said while everyone at UF was united in rejecting the hate message Spencer brought to their campus, not everyone was united in how to react to it. A protest of this scale had not occurred on the UF campus before, Resende said.

“The University of Florida is not Berkeley,” Resende said.  “Certainly not in terms of the imaginary; we hold that Berkeley is known for its protests — that it is very liberal, very progressive.”

In anticipation of Spencer’s arrival, Florida Governor Rick Scott also declared a state of emergency in Alachua County, where UF is located. More than 2,500 demonstrators arrived at the UF campus Thursday afternoon, according to a press release from the UF Police Department.

But differences in campus structure meant UF had to make different security arrangements, such as only blockading the street leading up to the event auditorium, as the location was already isolated from other sections of campus.  

UC Berkeley is an urban school in a highly populated area, Sikes said, while UF sits in a quiet town and spans over 2,000 acres.  This meant UF police could force people to walk “a very long distance” to reach the event location, Sikes explained, but it could not implement the same number of barricades used by UCPD around Sproul Plaza.

Gainesville Police Department confirmed that the event led to a collaboration across several agencies, with both Gainesville officers and Alachua County officers aiding the UF Police Department.

Security costs distributed between UF and other outside agencies ultimately exceeded $500,000, according to the UF website. In comparison, UC Berkeley spent an estimated $600,000 for conservative writer Ben Shapiro’s appearance in September, of which the University of California agreed to pay $300,000. The Berkeley College Republicans were also required to pay more than $15,000 in basic security costs.

UF had initially refused the National Policy Institute’s request to use the UF auditorium for Spencer’s appearance, but it was later advised to negotiate with the group and prepare a comprehensive security plan.

“In the wake of Charlottesville, we denied (the National Policy Institute),” Sikes said, citing the campus’s concern after social media threats against UF by the institute.  “No student group — no one affiliated with the university invited them.”

While UF faculty were told not to cancel their classes, many of them altered their classes from their syllabi, such as by holding a teach-in where faculty hoped to give their students “a space to process,” according to Resende. At UC Berkeley, a number of faculty members decided to boycott their classes in anticipation of Free Speech Week.

Although security for the event was ultimately successful, Resende said UF could have gone even farther.

“If you have to spend that much money on security, then you have admitted that the potential for violence is there and you cannot guarantee safety,” Resende said.  “I honestly think that the campus should have shut down. … I would have liked it to be a bolder stance.”

Contact Alicia Kim at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aliciackim.