Student Government Senate President Franco Luis’ first official action in his newly elected position was writing a public letter to SG and university officials expressing disappointment in one of UF’s recent decisions to suspend three organizations from campus.
After announcing the suspension of UF’s chapters of Turning Point USA, the Network of enlightened Women and Young Americans for Freedom, the university was criticized for being politically biased from students and selectively enforcing guidelines onto conservative groups.
In his letter, Luis expressed concerns about UF’s decision to temporarily suspend three conservative organizations for violating COVID-19 guidelines. He argued that the university was “silencing conservative voices” and the suspension violated the First Amendment by depriving students’ of their freedom of speech and right to assemble. Luis sent the letter to Dean of Students Heather White and Vice President of Student Affairs D’Andra Mull, and forwarded it to members of SG on March 24.
“While I understand and respect the University's COVID-19 policies, the selective enforcement of those guidelines and discrimination against the three conservative groups cannot be ignored by student leaders such as myself,” Luis wrote.
Luis further expanded on what he meant by “selective enforcement,” writing that UF’s administration failed to hold all student organizations to the same standards. He claimed he witnessed “multiple instances” of other student organizations violating the university’s COVID-19 guidelines, in which no interim suspensions were mandated.
He did not answer any of The Alligator’s questions asking for examples of such instances.
“As a publicly funded institution, we must maintain a neutral stance to the various voices that help make our campus great,” he wrote in an email.
Student Body President-elect Cooper Brown, Student Body Vice President-elect Faith Maniti and Student Body President Trevor Pope wrote in emails that Luis’ letter and opinions are not representative of Student Government’s viewpoints as a whole.
Brown, who served as the previous Senate president, endorsed the university’s enforcement of its clearly stated protocols and guidelines onto students and organizations. The university has “not only the right but the responsibility” to keep its students healthy, he wrote in an email.
“My belief has always been that personal politics have no place in Student Government,” Brown wrote. “We are here to serve the students and that is not a partisan issue.”
Maniti echoed Brown’s belief, writing in an email that allowing personal beliefs to interfere with their roles as Student Body leaders is irresponsible.
“I want to make it clear that this was not a matter of silencing voices, but rather emphasizing the safety of students,” Maniti wrote.
Student organizations are required by the university to register all events regardless of political or ideological beliefs, Pope wrote.
“While this interim suspension is unfortunate, it applies to all student organizations equally,” he wrote.
During Senate’s public comment Tuesday, Senator Zachery Utt (Murphree, Inspire) was the only senator to mention Luis’ letter. He expressed frustration with it being the first action taken by the new Senate president.
“This was not indicative of the way that the Senate feels,” Utt said. “It was wrong. It was an attempt to introduce this university into a political landscape it has no interest in being on.”
UF released a statement March 21 reiterating that it did not attack the organizations because of their political beliefs. Instead, it claimed to have followed standard practice to suspend organizations and individuals who violate established guidelines.
“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.
The release referenced evidence of attendees not wearing masks nor adhering to social distancing guidelines at the event, thus “jeopardizing the health and safety” of students. The Alligator has requested copies of the evidence.
The statement also clarified that four other student organizations and 20 students have been suspended for violating the same guidelines, mostly from Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils.
Contact Carolina Ilvento at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CarolinaIlvento.
Carolina is a second-year journalism major with a minor in sustainability. In the past, she covered stories and events for WUFT, and she is now reporting on Student Government for The Alligator. Carolina loves to do yoga and go to the beach whenever she isn't writing.