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USF voices support for free speech amid dispute over pro-Palestinian group

Comments by top leaders follow legal action over a state mandate to disband Students for Justice in Palestine.
 
University of South Florida President Rhea Law, center, and USF board of trustees chairperson Will Weatherford, right, talk with reporters after Law was named president on March 22, 2022 in Tampa. On Tuesday, the two spoke about campus free speech controversies that have arisen since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
University of South Florida President Rhea Law, center, and USF board of trustees chairperson Will Weatherford, right, talk with reporters after Law was named president on March 22, 2022 in Tampa. On Tuesday, the two spoke about campus free speech controversies that have arisen since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 5, 2023|Updated Dec. 5, 2023

In their first public comments since receiving a state mandate to disband a pro-Palestinian student group, the University of South Florida’s top leaders said Tuesday they are committed to supporting First Amendment rights of all on campus.

Their comments followed recent lawsuits filed against the state, the University of Florida and USF in response to an Oct. 24 letter from State University System chancellor Ray Rodrigues calling on the schools to disband local chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine.

The student group used strategies to help demonstrators that were distributed by a national organization, including language that Rodrigues and Gov. Ron DeSantis have insisted is tacit support for terrorism.

In comments at Tuesday’s USF board of trustees meeting, board chairperson Will Weatherford and USF President Rhea Law did not explicitly mention Rodrigues’ mandate or whether the university planned to carry it out. But they spoke at length about the school’s obligation to respect free speech.

Weatherford started the meeting by condemning the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks and expressing sorrow for “all the innocent victims in the region have been directly affected by the continuing conflict.”

“It’s a very complex situation and is a very complex time in our world,” he said, referencing views expressed during protests over the Israel-Hamas war.

Those views “may be offensive to some members of our community — at times that may be offensive to this chairman of this board of trustees,” he said, “but it’s our obligation as a public university to uphold the constitutional right of free speech and open dialogue.”

Weatherford reiterated the groups do not speak on behalf of the university.

“We don’t endorse the content of that speech, but they have a right to that speech,” he said. “The University of South Florida will continue to be a great place where we can treat each other with respect, empathy, and compassion, even when we disagree.”

Law expressed similar sentiments, adding that on a campus of 50,000 students and 16,000 employees, many people have deep ties to the region.

“The incidents and rhetoric will continue to be a source of anger and fear, sadness,” she said.

Law said while the First Amendment does not require people to be civil, USF’s expectation for its community was to maintain respect.

“We are committed to safeguarding the First Amendment rights of all of the members of our community, while at the same time making clear that the groups and the individuals exercising those rights do not speak for our university and USF does not endorse the content of their speech,” she said.

Law said violence, discrimination, harassment or intimidation will not be tolerated, adding that law enforcement presence has been increased on campus.

“Incidents of antisemitism, Islamophobia, hatred and bigotry have no place in our society,” she said.

In the spring, the university plans to host forums for civil discourse with differing viewpoints and lectures about the history of the region, Law said.

Law and Weatherford were not immediately available for comment after the meeting. A USF spokesperson said the university is engaged in ongoing discussions with Rodrigues’ office over the matter.

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Spotlight on education

The public is invited to a community conversation about the future of Florida public schools on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at the Tampa Theatre, hosted by the Tampa Bay Times. In the second installment of the Spotlight Tampa Bay series, Times journalists will moderate a discussion by experts, followed by a panel featuring students. Tickets are $20; $10 for students. Proceeds benefit the Times’ Journalism Fund. To purchase tickets, click here.