Laura Rodriguez, a junior at the University of South Florida and member of Students for a Democratic Society, was on her way from class to attend a protest Tuesday when she saw someone being arrested.
Five people, students and former students, were detained outside the Marshall Student Center on charges of trespassing and served notices to appear after being told to disperse, according to the University Police Department.
They were there for a rally calling attention to the climate for free speech on college campuses in Florida. Participants were protesting state legislation that proposes increased penalties for protesters who block traffic or participate in “disorderly assemblies.”
But, under the current phase of USF’s re-opening plan, all planned events must be virtual unless otherwise approved. University Police said USF’s Emergency Management team heard about plans for the rally on Monday and contacted Taylor Cook, who had shared information about it. They told her the event was not allowed.
Cook, a third-year USF student and a member of Students for a Democratic Society who had seen the event promoted on Instagram by another group, said that group decided to go on with the rally anyway. She was among those arrested.
Students for a Democratic Society had been suspended from campus last semester after hosting on-campus rallies protesting budget cuts and low Black student enrollment. Other groups — including Students for Justice in Palestine and Save USF, which protested the potential disbanding of the College of Education — were also threatened with suspension and told they’d be trespassed from campus, Cook said.
Meanwhile, she said, the university allowed campus demonstrations from Kaitlin Bennett, a controversial online figure and gun rights activist who roused a crowd on campus last fall, and a group of extremist preachers a few weeks ago.
“It’s clear hypocrisy,” Cook said.
Tuesday’s event began around noon when about 10 people gathered near the Marshall center, according to University Police, who said the group was told five times to disperse.
Hailey Ostwalt, a USF student and member of Party for Socialism and Liberation Tampa Bay, an organization that supported the rally, was among those arrested.
“They just proved our point, I guess,” she said. “They let Kaitlin Bennett on campus, unmasked, with a posse of people, unmasked, and said they couldn’t do anything about it because it’s an open campus. It was infuriating to see someone who is not a student, publicly known for getting a rise out of people and spewing hate speech, that they can’t tell her to leave, but students who are angry about actual things happening on campus, they can just arrest us.”
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Ostwalt said she was arrested after she began recording other students being arrested and asking officers for their names and badge numbers.
USF spokesman Adam Freeman said Bennett’s visit last fall did not meet the university’s definition of an event because it was not something that had been organized or publicized beforehand.
“USF’s campuses are open to the public and individuals have the right to free speech on campuses,” he said. “But under the current phase of the re-opening plan, events that are advertised or publicized are not allowed.”
Rodriguez called the charges “bogus” and said she was disappointed. Students are encouraged to go to football games with more people, she said, but the rallies by contrast maintain social distance and people stay masked.
Student activists play a vital role, she said.
“These are the people who created a lot of the protests in the wake of the George Floyd uprising. These are the people who have enacted a lot of communities to come out and voice their opinions.”
Cook said Students for a Democratic Society is organizing a call-in Wednesday to the office of USF president Steve Currall to ask that the charges be dropped.