Three conservative UF student groups are under temporary suspension after violating university COVID-19 guidelines and failing to register for an on-campus event, the university announced in a statement Sunday.
The university said it has photos of the attendees not adhering to physical distancing guidelines or wearing face coverings. UF also said it obtained text messages that indicate members of the student groups were aware of the COVID-19 policies and knew they were required but did not register the event with the Vice President for Student Affairs according to the Use of University Space policy.
One attendant, who learned before the event they should isolate to reduce the risk of spreading infection in accordance with CDC and Florida Department of Health Guidelines, was photographed maskless with their arms around two other attendees, according to the statement. It is unclear whether this student is facing any disciplinary action.
UF spokesperson Steve Orlando did not answer questions about the dates of the meetings among the university and the organizations, how it acquired the text messages and photographic evidence nor information regarding the individual who was at risk. Orlando wrote in a text message that everything UF has to say about the issue is in the statement.
The university’s statement came after it received backlash from conservative politicians about the decision to temporarily suspend the chapters. Fox News reported that according to UF TPUSA chapter secretary Abby Streetman, members took off their masks to eat during the event but were socially distanced when playing sports and were told through an Instagram post to bring masks.
On March 4, one attendee posted several pictures from the gathering on Twitter showing some unmasked people posing for group photos and socializing. The photos included other groups wearing masks and socializing.
UF dispelled any claims about targeting the groups for their political beliefs in its statement.
“The university has not taken, and would not take, action against a student or registered student group based on the viewpoint they represent or the content of their speech,” the statement read.
Carter Mermer, the president of TPUSA at UF, said participants were encouraged to bring masks to the event in social media post captions. The 22-year-old UF business administration senior said most students at the event adhered to the mask policy, but there were some who did not comply despite being told by Mermer to do so.
“At the end of the day, I can’t force them to do it,” he said. “If they don’t want to wear a mask outside then there’s really nothing that I can do.”
Mermer received notice of the group’s interim suspension on March 5. He said he attempted to appeal the suspension on March 10 but was rejected on March 17.
In his appeal, Mermer wrote he didn’t reserve the Norman Field because he did not believe it was required. He thought it was public property where the organizations could “peaceably assemble.”
He also wrote that he has been strict with masks ever since being reprimanded by student affairs in the past about the mask-wearing policy.
Mermer said he does not believe the university is attacking the organization for its political ideologies, but he does feel that the response was extreme.
“They managed to suspend all of the largest conservative clubs on campus in one fell swoop,” Mermer said.
Karin Lips, NeW's national president, wrote in a statement on March 22 that the organization is a strong advocate for “intellectual diversity” on American college campuses, urging UF’s administration to “hold liberal and conservative organizations to the same standards on campus.”
Another group leader, Charlie Kirk, founder of TPUSA, condemned UF’s actions in a tweet on Saturday and discouraged people from donating to the university. Kirk has been caught in controversy for spreading conspiracy theories on Twitter, such as ideas about COVID-19.
Philip Smith, the president of the YAF chapter at UF, wrote in a text message that the organization is not releasing a statement at this time.
Interim suspension requires the groups to temporarily stop all chapter activities, according to the statement. A meeting will take place with Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution, which is a service within the Dean of Students Office and aims to provide processes and support for those impacted by or involved with UF regulation violations.
The university will share information regarding the allegations and each group will be granted a chance to respond.
Contact Abigail Hasebroock at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @abbeyhasebroock.
Abigail is a second-year journalism major covering university general assignment news for The Alligator. When she’s not catching up on school or reporting, she’s spending time outside, reading or reorganizing her Spotify playlists - usually all at the same time.