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Monday, February 06, 2023

Florida Legal Services asks UF to reverse indoor demonstration ban inside ahead of Tuesday’s protest

FLS may consider legal action

<p>Students storm inside the president&#x27;s ballroom and protest against U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, as the UF presidential finalist Monday, Oct. 10, 2022. </p>

Students storm inside the president's ballroom and protest against U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, as the UF presidential finalist Monday, Oct. 10, 2022.

On behalf of the United Faculty of Florida, Florida Legal Services demanded in a letter Friday that UF revoke its ban on demonstrations inside university buildings. 

The ban, which was announced by President Kent Fuchs in an email Oct. 24, poses a threat to the free speech rights of those who seek to express opposition to Sen. Ben Sasse’s appointment as UF president, the letter wrote. 

Florida Legal Services is an advocative organization that works to advance economic, social and racial justice, according to the FLS website.

On Oct. 10, 300 protestors stormed up the stairs to the second floor of Emerson Alumni Hall to disrupt Sasse’s Q&A forum in the President’s Ballroom. Fifteen minutes before the session was scheduled to end, protestors forced their way into the ballroom, but Sasse had already left. He was later seen being escorted into a waiting car by the University Police Department. 

Just two weeks later, Fuchs said UF would return to a two-decades-old regulation and no longer allow demonstrations inside campus buildings. Students who violate the rule may be subject to discipline under the UF Student Conduct Code and may even face criminal penalties.

The FLS letter to Fuchs and the UF Board of Trustees wrote the regulation hasn’t been enforced for many years and will be selectively enforced in anticipation of Tuesday’s protest in response to a meeting between Sasse and the Board of Trustees.

FLS cited several U.S. Supreme Court cases in its letter to argue that the ban is “legally and factually unsupported.”

UF’s restriction on speech is unconstitutional, the letter said, because “it is based merely on speculation, disagreement with the views expressed and relies on fear or apprehension of disturbance,” referencing Healy v. James.

As justification for the regulation, Fuchs referenced the Oct. 10 protest in his email, but FLS’ letter called the university’s reasoning “insufficient…to overcome the well-established right to freedom of expression at a public university.”

FLS also wrote the restriction on speech is content-based, meaning it applies to the substance of the message being communicated. Content-based policies threaten the suppression of particular points of view, the letter wrote.

The restriction isn’t content-neutral, FLS said, which focuses on the manner in which the speech is expressed.

“UF is targeting specific speech that opposes Senator Sasse’s views,” the letter wrote. “This is clear from President Fuchs’ statement about why the ban on protests inside campus buildings will be enforced at this particular meeting when UF has chosen not to do for many years regarding other demonstrations.”

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FLS went on to further explain how a state university isn’t allowed to forbid some speech and allow other speech. Doing so may have a “chilling effect” — the deterrence of people practicing freedom of speech in fear of legal penalties.

UF’s enforcement of the ban leaves protestors outside of Emerson Hall without “ample alternative channels of communication” because their intended audiences won’t be able to see or hear them, FLS wrote.

This policy forbids substantially more speech than is necessary, the letter read, because even a silent demonstration inside a university building is prohibited.

FLS asks the university to reverse the ban on demonstrations inside campus buildings before the protest scheduled for Tuesday. Refusing to do so may result in FLS “consider[ing] legal action to ensure that free speech rights of all at the University are upheld.”

Contact Lily Kino at lkino@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @lily_kino

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Lily Kino

Lily is a third-year journalism major with a concentration in environmental science covering criminal justice for The Alligator. Last semester, she served as the Santa Fe reporter. When she's not writing, you can find Lily on a nature walk, eating Domino's Pizza or spending time with her friends.


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