The University of Florida is facing online backlash for temporarily suspending three conservative student groups earlier this month after they held a cookout at Norman Field.
According to a UF statement, Turning Point USA, Network of Enlightened Women and Young Americans for Freedom chapter members violated school policy by not registering their event, wearing masks or physically distancing at the March 3 cookout.
The suspension is standard procedure during a university investigation, the statement said, not political suppression.
But many conservative students and political leaders are upset, pushing back against UF’s COVID-19 safety allegations and arguing that even if the suspension didn’t stem from their political views, it takes away their ability to gather and share ideas.
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Turning Point USA is a 501(c)3 non-profit founded by Charlie Kirk in 2012. It aims to teach young adults, especially on high school and college campuses, about freedom, free markets and limited government.
Young Americans for Freedom is the school affiliate of the Young America’s Foundation, an outreach organization for the conservative movement.
And Network of Enlightened Women was originally a book club for conservative college women founded in 2004 that has since expanded to educate and support female leaders with intellectual diversity.
These groups are part of a nationwide push to support conservative and independent thinking among universities, which they see as bastions of liberal thought and education.
The Sun emailed and messaged all three groups, but they either did not respond or could not comment in time.
UF’s statement said it has two kinds of evidence of the groups’ cookout violations:
- Text messages showing members knew of but chose not to follow UF’s event registration, mask and social distancing policies
- Photos of people unmasked and hugging at the event, including one person who should have been isolating
The temporary suspension prevents the three campus groups from hosting events on university space and participating in other UF activities. It still allows students to attend class and is not a formal, final sanction.
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Four other student groups, including several fraternities and a sorority, and more than 20 individuals have also received the temporary restrictions during the fall and spring semesters, the public statement said.
UF’s next step is to schedule a hearing with the Student Conduct & Conflict Resolution team, during which each group can respond to the allegations and presented evidence. No date has been set, and UF spokesman Steve Orlando said he would not comment further because the investigation is underway.
An Instagram post from UF’s Turning Point USA organization on March 1 advertised the cookout with a reminder to bring a mask. Its next photo, posted two days later on March 3, showed a group of about 50 people on the field, some wearing masks and some not.
Some who weighed in questioned whether mask requirements violate attendees’ constitutional rights. The state of Florida only recommends, not enforces, face coverings.
Others touch on conservative censorship in higher education, a concern the state legislature is considering as it hears two bills: HB 233 and SB 264. If passed, they would prevent universities from banning controversial speakers, require them to annually survey and publicly report intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity on campus and allow students to record lectures for court evidence without others’ consent.
Recording someone without their consent is currently a violation of Florida law unless done in a public space.
Some of UF’s recent controversial speakers that prompted student protests and even a countywide state of emergency were white supremacist Richard Spencer in 2017 and Donald Trump Jr. in 2019.
In its statement, UF administrators said claims that it was targeting Turning Point USA, Network of Enlightened Women and Young Americans for Freedom for their political beliefs were “simply not true.”
“UF has a responsibility to provide First Amendment protections to its students, faculty, staff and other members of the community,” the statement reads. “In accordance with our standard practice, the university has not taken, and would not take, action against a student or registered student group based on the viewpoint they represent or the content of their speech.”