Letter from Central Florida ACLU to University of Central Florida President John Hitt, January 18, 2007

By on January 18, 2007

Dear President Hitt:

As you know, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is sworn to the protection of individual liberties including the freedom of speech, association and assembly. It has been brought to my attention that certain policies at the University of Central Florida (UCF), namely the enforcement of so-called “free assembly areas” or “free speech zones,” have had a chilling effect on these essential liberties.

As President of the Central Florida American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), I am writing to express my profound concern over UCF’s “free speech zones.” I am also writing to express my alarm over the acts of police harassment and administrative intimidation faced by students who were engaged in peaceful free speech activities on campus on January 10 and January 18, 2007.

For over a year, the Central Florida ACLU has been alerted to the chilling effect of UCF’s “free speech zones.” We are also aware of the growing opposition to these zones both on and off campus. We are proud to have joined a number of student groups who successfully petitioned to have the UCF Student Senate pass a resolution condemning these “free speech zones.”

The stated purpose of the “free speech zones” is to ensure “that the essential order of the University is preserved.” I am sure you would agree that part of the essential order of any university is, of course, the encouragement of the freedom of inquiry. The freedom of inquiry in turn can only flourish in an environment that is conducive to the freedom of speech, association and assembly. By severely limiting the freedoms that undergird the freedom of inquiry, the “free speech zones” create an intolerable contradiction that undermines the essential order of the University.

There are, of course, legitimate time place and manner restrictions on our fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly in public places. However, the restrictions prescribed by UCF in the form of “free speech zones” are unreasonably broad and oppressive. The “free speech zones” only serve to relegate critical forms of speech to marginal areas of the UCF campus while corporate logos and other forms of commercial speech enjoy an unparalleled command over the busiest transit and gathering areas on campus. As a consequence, instead of calling restricted speech areas “free speech zones,” it would be more apt to call them “free speech ghettoes.”

On a related note, your Administration appears to be using the “free speech zones” and university police to target and intimidate student political activists, particularly students belonging to UCF Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). This is manifest in the large police presence and actions taken at the peaceful events held by SDS on campus on January 10 and January 18, 2007.

At the January 10 event, SDS students held one of their “Free Stores,” which they have done regularly since the Fall Semester of 2006. According to SDS students, the Free Store allows students to give, take and exchange goods without charge, thus providing an alternative venue to the overtly commercial character of the Student Union. At the event, UCF police harassed and intimidated students, handed out citations, threatened arrest, and very nearly confiscated all of the goods contributed for the event.

By resorting to an outdated and unknown manual that allegedly showed the students to be a few feet outside of a “free speech zone,” UCF police threatened students with arrest for simply assembling outside the Student Union. No student could have possibly discerned the limits of the “free speech zone” around the Student Union by reading student guidelines (i.e., the Golden Rule). In addition, even if students had been aware of the “free speech zone” limits, the harassment and intimidation they faced in front of their own Student Union is simply unconscionable. It is truly Kafkaesque that the UCF Police Department issued a citation to a student for trespassing in a public area classified as a “free speech zone” at his public university. Other students received the same harassment and intimidation, but lesser official reprimands.

The climate of police intimidation was also clearly present at a peaceful anti-war event held on January 18 in front of the Student Union. Although police forces did not move to stop the event, these forces nevertheless verbally threatened to stop the event. If it were not for the number and determination of the students at the event, UCF police may have been able to shut down yet another campus event and delivered another blow to the freedom of expression at UCF.

To conclude, President Hitt, I would like to make two requests on behalf of the Central Florida ACLU in the interests of protecting civil liberties on the UCF campus. First, I am requesting that you use your offices to eliminate all “free speech zones” since they are anathema to the spirit of free inquiry and expression that should characterize our public institutions of higher learning. The “free speech zones” can and should be eliminated in favor of much less restrictive alternatives to be decided in concert with the UCF student  body. Second, I am requesting that you drop all charges or warnings and expunge the records of all the students involved in the January 10, 2007 event. Accordingly, any and all disciplinary and/or criminal referrals, warnings, or reports should be immediately revoked.

I look forward to working together with you as we defend our most fundamental liberties in all areas of our public life, but above all, in our institutions of higher learning and inquiry.

Sincerely,

George Crossley

President

Central Florida ACLU

Schools: University of Central Florida Cases: University of Central Florida: Speech Quarantined to ‘Free Assembly Areas’