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Monday, March 04, 2024

The event was supposed to ignite a debate. Instead, students reached a consensus.

Jarrod Rodriguez wanted to know why hecklers drowning out Richard Spencer’s speech at the Phillips Center for Performing Arts weren’t asked to leave.

“Wouldn’t they have been kicked out?” he asked David Parrott, UF’s vice president for student affairs. Rodriguez, a member of Young Americans for Freedom, wanted to understand how chants from counter-protesters in the audience didn’t infringe on Spencer’s First Amendment right to speak freely in October.

The 18-year-old UF business management freshman was one of about 30 students who came to Pugh Hall on Wednesday night for UF’s first “Campus Conversations,” an event that aimed to get students debating their stances on mental health, free speech zones and gun control. Parrott fielded questions after students had a chance to discuss the topics in small groups.

“It’s a tough call when we want to be protective of the First Amendment,” Parrott said. He said police officers’ decisions of whether to ask people to leave or not are subjective. Because Spencer continued speaking, he was never totally silenced.

Student fellows for the Bob Graham Center for Public Service decided to model the conversation after a conference at Harvard University where more than 60 student ambassadors from 30 universities met to talk about issues affecting their college campuses and how to effectively engage with people who have different opinions, said Brett Steinfeld, a fellow who helped organize the event.

“One of the things I’m really interested is why the campus seems so divided,” the UF political science sophomore said.

During the event, participants gathered around pizza and lemonade before splitting off and taking seats at the eight small tables spread out around the room. Everyone was given a sheet of talking points, or sample opinions to serve as starting points for discussion.

They read things like, “Free Speech Zones are too disruptive.” or “Teachers should be armed.”

However, rather than sparking heated debate, the crowd generally agreed on most issues. More often, students asked questions of Parrott than they did challenge one another.

Bob Graham fellow, Sara Henley said she was satisfied with how the night unfolded but would try improve the event next time by inviting organizations that clearly do have different opinions.

“As a pilot program you never know how it’s going to go,” the 20-year-old UF public health and business management sophomore said.

Contact Elliott Nasby at Follow him on Twitter at @_ElohEl

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