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Monday, May 20, 2024

UF student denied entry to first lady Michelle Obama speech

When Matt Pesek got dressed Monday, he didn’t know his T-shirt choice would ruin his plans.

The 20-year-old political science and religion senior is a passionate Republican whose drawers are full of political T-shirts.

“I have dozens,” he said. “It’s all I wear.”

Pesek might not have noticed he was wearing a “Gators for McCain/Palin” shirt, but the Obama for America staff at first lady Michelle Obama’s speech at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center did. He said he was denied entrance to the event.

“I was looking forward to it for quite a while,” Pesek said. “They acted like she’s not my first lady, too. Even though I have different political views, I’d like to see the wife of the president speak.”

Pesek said a volunteer outside the venue with a “250-pound backup” told him he had to leave and surrender his ticket. The volunteer said the speech was for Obama supporters, Pesek said.

“We allow anyone and everyone to attend our events. In this particular case, the individual was asked to leave by university officials after he became disruptive in line,” wrote a campaign official in an emailed statement.

Pesek said he turned the shirt inside-out, and he offered to ask a friend to bring him a “Gators for Obama” T-shirt to wear. He even waited another hour in the line to try getting in again with another ticket.

“I was not going down easily,” Pesek said.

The event was privately hosted by Obama for America, UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said. The O’Connell Center was rented to the organization, and it distributed tickets independently.

Sikes said privately hosted events are controlled by independent organizers.

“The decision to limit entry to the event was made by the Obama campaign and not the University of Florida,” she said.

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When Pesek was protesting the entry denial, Dean of Students Jen Day Shaw came up and asked the campaign volunteers to let him in, Sikes said. They didn’t.

“She did speak to the student but had no say in the decision,” Sikes said.

Sikes said Shaw and other Dean of Students employees were circulating the lines as a “safety precaution,” taking care of those waiting in line experiencing heat exhaustion or helping handicapped visitors find the correct entrances.

Sikes said a similar incident happened when George W. Bush came to campaign in Gainesville in 2004, and Secret Service members removed Democrats from the event.

Pesek said he once went to a Joe Biden speech in a “Joe the Plumber”-themed T-shirt, a reference to a conservative middle-class man featured in the 2008 Republican campaign. He wore a Mitt Romney campaign shirt while picking up free tickets last week to see Obama.

Pesek said he was surprised to be denied entry to Obama’s speech Monday.

“I don’t think that’s how these events should be,” he said. “I didn’t think it’d be a big deal. That’s a sad day for the country when you polarize the country like that.”

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