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HCC advisory council drops Pledge of Allegiance from meetings

Published Oct. 8, 2015

TAMPA — A Hillsborough Community College advisory council will no longer say the Pledge of Allegiance at its meetings — and the college isn't happy about it.

The Institutional Advisory Council, made up of students, faculty and staff from six campuses, voted in September to drop the pledge from its meetings, according to their minutes.

"A heated discussion ensued between the IAC about the Pledge of Allegiance and its appropriateness in an institution of higher learning which fosters academic freedom and structured dissent against authority," the minutes said. "Some members expressed views that the Pledge made some people uncomfortable and that it violated their beliefs in academic freedom and the goals of the IAC."

HCC spokeswoman Ashley Carl said the decision was particularly "concerning" because the organization serves as an umbrella group whose policies affect the six smaller Campus Advisory Councils.

"The administration is very disappointed that they would take an action that would prevent our campus councils from saying the pledge, if they deemed that's what they would like to do," Carl said. "It's an issue of freedom of speech."

Minutes from the meeting show that a motion was made by chairwoman Sunshine Gibbons, a math instructor at HCC, to determine whether the campus councils should say the Pledge of Allegiance when hosting the Institutional Advisory Council. That then progressed into whether the pledge should be said at any IAC meeting.

The motion to drop the pledge from IAC and campus council meetings passed 3-1, with the Ybor campus abstaining to discuss it further at its next campus council meeting.

However, Gibbons said in a statement that the "minutes do not represent an accurate portrayal" of what happened at the meeting, and that "academic freedom" and "structured dissent against authority" were never mentioned.

"The most common reason discussed was time efficiency and consistency with other committees," Gibbons said. "It was stated that if the group was to be sensitive to the diverse population at the meetings, perhaps it would be better to not put anyone in a position to feel uncomfortable or out of place."

Carl cautioned that she was not at the meeting and was unsure how discussion surrounding the issue progressed. Regardless, Carl said, removing an individual's right "to say the pledge is wrong" and goes against the culture and fabric of HCC.

Individuals are required to take a loyalty oath to the United States and the Constitution to work at HCC, Carl said. The college is taxpayer-funded and prides itself on serving the military and veterans. A marquee on HCC's Ybor City Campus Thursday read, "We pledge allegiance."

"Community colleges are an American institution," Carl said. "We wouldn't want somebody to feel like they didn't have their voice represented if they chose to say the pledge."

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Some students on HCC's Ybor campus Thursday said removing the Pledge of Allegiance from IAC meetings and the campus council meetings was unpatriotic.

"You can't go against freedom of speech," freshman Adam Wooton, 19, said. "It's literally the first amendment. If you don't want to say it, you don't have to, but you shouldn't be able to stop someone else from saying it."

Others questioned what the point was of saying the pledge before any campus meetings. Nefertiti Vaughn, 20, and Keyana Fletcher, 24, both grew up saying the pledge in school, but both questioned its purpose and roll in an academic setting.

"It makes me a little uneasy," Vaughn said. "There are a lot of things we're taught to do but don't know why."

Gibbons said the matter was first brought before the council last spring, and each campus council was instructed to discuss the issue with its members and report back to the IAC. The vote that was taken was reflective of the membership of all councils involved, she said.

"At this point," Gibbons said, "we are caught in the difficult position to decide which is less reflective of the core American values: to eliminate the pledge from a committee meeting or to abandon the democratic process by which it was decided to be eliminated."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.