When U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse returns to the University of Florida to interview for the president’s job soon, the school will be enforcing an old regulation that bans protests inside campus buildings.
The move, announced Monday by outgoing president Kent Fuchs, comes after Sasse’s first visit to campus on Oct. 10 was interrupted by a large group of protesters. Their shouts drowned out a moderated forum with students and moved Sasse’s scheduled session with staff to virtual mode after protesters took over the ballroom where he was speaking.
Fuchs said the regulation would be enforced to protect the rights of those who want to hear presentations surrounding the presidential search. On Nov. 1, Sasse, the lone finalist for the position, will appear before the UF board of trustees for a formal, public interview.
“We have not enforced this policy in recent years because in the rare cases that protesters entered buildings, they were respectful of others and their rights to speak and to hear,” Fuchs wrote in an email message to the university community.
The regulation also states “demonstrations may be held anywhere on the campus, so long as they do not disrupt the normal operation of the University or infringe on the rights of other members of the University community” and that “use of sound amplification equipment on the outdoor areas of campus must have prior clearance.”
The email said students who the break the rule may be subject to discipline under the Student Conduct Code.
Rachel Hartnett, co-president of the Graduate Assistant Union, which helped organize the last protest, said she was disappointed the university was enforcing a rule created during a dark chapter in its history to quiet protests during the civil rights movement.
“Protests are meant to be inconvenient,” Hartnett said. “That’s what makes them effective in many ways.”
The opposition to Sasse, she said, is not a fringe issue.
“I think here on the ground what people are forgetting is that we have not had a say,” Hartnett said. “We’re not being listened to and not being heard.... We feel like if they’re not going to create a space for us then we’re going to make that space for ourselves.”
Aron Ali-McClory, an organizer of the Oct. 10 protest, said the group’s plans remain unchanged “in spite of the university’s fear mongering.” They plan to protest outside the building where Sasse will be questioned and plan to present their demands during the student body president’s office hours leading up to Nov. 1.
“We knew the policy existed,” he said. “We knew they didn’t enforce it. It was kind of the scope of the message that caught us off guard, and that it was from president Fuchs.”
In his email, Fuchs wrote that “the university holds sacred the right to free speech, and I strongly encourage you to exercise it. It is a blessing that distinguishes our great country from many others around the world, and as many from those other countries will tell you, we must protect it vigorously.”
The message continued: “Ours is a large university where conversation, civil discourse and dissent are all a regular and needed part of campus life. I pray that we will continue to find ways to express ourselves civilly and listen to those who disagree with us or who we find disagreeable — and ensure that all others can do the same.”
Divya Kumar is a higher education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.