A white nationalist has been given full control over which journalists will be permitted to cover his “freedom of speech” event at the University of Florida on Thursday, a university spokeswoman said, a situation one expert called “ironic”.
“They’ve rented the facility. It’s their event. It’s not our event,” university spokeswoman Janine Sikes said on Wednesday. “It’s their event, so that’s why they can have whomever they want.”
White nationalist Richard Spencer, who is headlining the event, has the authority to handpick which journalists can cover his speech or deny access to any journalists at all, first amendment experts at the University of Florida said.
Spencer’s group has also been given complete control over who will receive audience tickets. The group announced they will hand out tickets in person about an hour before the speech starts, a plan one student organizer called “volatile” and “a huge danger”.
The university’s negotiations with Spencer appear to have “unfortunately sacrificed” journalists’ first amendment rights, said Clay Calvert, the director of the University of Florida’s Marion B Brechner First Amendment Project.
Asked who was to blame for this state of affairs, Calvert said: “The university would be responsible. I don’t want to say the word ‘blame’. The university is the entity that ultimately made the decision not to allow a free access pool of journalists, and they could have negotiated that.”
Calvert went on: “It is a rather ironic situation. Here’s a individual who gets to speak because of the first amendment, but he also gets to exclude members of the press based upon his whim, who are also protected by the first amendment.”
“It’s a hard thing to wrap your head around,” said Frank LoMonte, the director of the university’s Joseph L Brechner Center for Freedom of Information. “I can only imagine that the goal is not to entangle the university in the management of the event.
“The president here has been very clear that the university didn’t invite this speaker, doesn’t condone this speaker, and it may be that they’re taking an especially hands-off policy so as not to get entangled.”
The University of Florida president, Kent Fuchs, said this month the school had no choice but to allow Spencer to rent a public campus venue to discuss his white nationalist ideas and racist advocacy. Spencer is paying the university $10,564 to rent the Phillips Center and pay for security inside the venue. By law, the president said in a statement, the university must shoulder the additional cost of more than $500,000 to provide security for Spencer’s event and the protests around it.
But the details of ticketing and media credentialing would have been negotiated by private contract, not constitutional law, the two experts said.
“Once you’re turning the space over completely to a private lessor, then unless the contract provides otherwise, the university can and I guess does relinquish control over the event,” LoMonte said.
“Putting on my hat as an advocate for journalists, I don’t like it a bit that journalists might be excluded based on the perceived viewpoint of their publications,” he said. “If the only people that get to come in are the KKK newsletter, then that’s a big problem.”Spencer’s strongest first amendment argument would apply to his control over ticketing in general, since a lack of control over ticket distribution might lead to the tickets all being claimed by Spencer’s opponents, or by people who planned to walk out of the speech as soon as it started.
Trying to make a first amendment case for controlling media credentialing would be a much more difficult battle, LoMonte said. “I don’t think you have a first amendment right to be covered by the media in the way that you choose,” he said. “I can’t come up with a way that’s a viable first amendment claim.”
Journalists who requested a credential to cover Thursday’s event were told by the university in an email: “All media credentialing decisions are made by [Spencer’s National Policy Institute].”
The university had originally planned to set aside 100 seats inside the venue for press. The number of requests for media credentials has exceeded that number, Sikes said.
“We’ve gotten over 200 requests – so somebody had to decide,” she said.
In a phone interview, Spencer scoffed at the idea that he might turn away journalists based on the political leanings of their outlets.
“We’re obviously going to preference mainstream journalists,” he said. “That’s the best way to communicate with people.”
He added: “I love mainstream liberals. Those are my favorite journalists.”
Some of the information that journalists provided to the university as part of the credentialing process was passed along to the National Policy Institute, Sikes said, including names, roles, and media outlets. Sikes said she did not know whether other information journalists provided, including their cellphone numbers, was also passed along. “I’m not aware that we’ve done that,” she said.
The university website did not tell journalists that their information was being shared directly with a white nationalist organization. “Sorry,” Sikes said.
Evan McLaren, the National Policy Institute’s executive director, will go through the list of journalists provided by the university and “he’ll make a game-time decision – or a kind of personal decision on everyone,” Spencer said.
While they had originally set aside 100 seats for journalists, “we might boost that up to 150,” Spencer said.