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Monday, September 27, 2021

The UF Supreme Court voted Friday that a referendum asking students if they want to rename the Reitz Union will appear on the October Student Government elections ballot.

On the final hearing for this referendum, the court approved it by striking the beginning sentences and only having the final sentence — the question itself — on the ballot.

The referendum’s wording had been preliminarily approved last month. Going into Friday’s hearing, it read, “J. Wayne Reitz, the namesake of the student union, was a university president who collaborated in purging gay students and professors from UF. His administration also disregarded [U.S.] Supreme Court orders for racial integration at UF until 1958. Virgil Hawkins was denied entrance to UF in 1949 because of his race. Hawkins fought UF segregation in court for nine years. He won racial integration of UF graduate and professional schools under the condition he would not be permitted entrance. Should the student union be renamed after Virgil Hawkins?”

At a previous hearing, Ariana Alfonso, a former supervisor of elections and current law student, asked the court to review the language of the referendum again. At Friday’s meeting, she was introduced as the solicitor general, representing the executive branch of SG.

Alfonso said the language as it stood misled the students and slandered Reitz. She said the court should amend and review the referendum so the language is not biased.

Sen. Ford Dwyer, who authored the referendum, said the school may have expanded under Reitz’s leadership, but his record is still scarred. Dwyer said all the information in his referendum was factual.

“This objection is the dissatisfaction of some regarding the court’s original decision, and now they want a redo,” he said.

Associate Justice Alex Andrade, who was not present at the initial hearing, proposed denying the referendum as a whole and letting Dwyer come back next semester with a cleaned-up version to put on the ballot.

Andrade said the signatures collected were tainted because they were collected under wording that he did not find proper.

But Associate Justice Tim Mason disagreed. He said that no matter the wording used in the referendum, Dwyer would have explained Hawkins’ achievements and Reitz’s actions when conveying his message to potential signers.

“I don’t think it would have made much of a difference,” Mason said.

But he agreed that the wording was biased and proposed removing the language that referred to Reitz.

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Associate Justice Cole Sullivan proposed that only the question in the referendum remain on the ballot. He said it would be abusing the court’s power to strike the referendum down as a whole.

“I do feel as far as policy goes, we need to have a better system in place,” Sullivan said.

The court ruled 5-2 that it will inform the supervisor of elections to place the last sentence of the referendum on the ballot.

Dwyer said he was expecting this result because people at the university don’t want students knowing this issue.

“I think they treated this specific referendum unfairly and treated it differently than others in the past,” Dwyer said after the hearing.

But Dwyer said he still believes he will get a majority of voting students to vote “yes” on the ballot.

“I believe that I can and try my best to do so, despite the obstacles the court presented to me today,” he said after the hearing.

Contact Samantha Shavell at sshavell@alligator.org.

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