USF Polytechnic Student Faces Punishment for Criticizing Fellow Student Government Officials

By December 2, 2011

The Oracle, a student newspaper at the University of South Florida (USF), reports on a potentially troubling intrusion on free speech at USF Polytechnic (a separate institution with ties to USF, though Florida’s Board of Governors is considering making it independent). Michael Nacrelli, a Student Government senator, is facing punishment for a series of emails that were critical of his fellow student government officials. 

The Oracle reports this week: 

Michael Nacrelli, a senior majoring in psychology and a member of Student Government (SG) group Poly 5, received a letter last week from Dean of Students Jan Lloyd asking to set up a meeting by Thursday about emails he sent to other SG members criticizing the decisions of SG and USF leaders. 

Nacrelli faces "failure to follow instructions" and "disruptive conduct" violations, and Lloyd said in the letter if he does not meet with her by this week, "a decision, which may affect (Nacrelli’s) student status, will be made without the benefit of input from (Nacrelli)."

As to the nature of the email exchanges that landed Nacrelli in trouble, The Oracle recounts:

In a Nov. 5 email sent to USF Polytechnic SG senators, directed to Senator Joshua Ely, Nacrelli said Ely acted impartially, coming to the defense of SG President Kathryn Bevilacqua, Ely’s fiancé and "lover." 

"You were totally out of line and I feel it’s time you made a serious decision as to whether or not you can work side-by-side with your girlfriend without allowing your love for her cloud your professional judgment," he wrote.

On Nov. 8, SG senator Ryan Scuderi wrote to other senators saying he was disappointed in some senators "taking the position as senator more seriously" than they should, resulting in negative media coverage. 

"Take, for example, the buses to the Board of Governors meeting," he wrote. "The issue (of withdrawing an offer for students to travel to Boca Raton) was resolved AFTER the news media had published it and our organization needed to catch up on the matter, it made us all look foolish." 

The Lakeland Ledger published an article early this month, stating Bevilacqua sent out an offer to Poly students to ride SG sponsored buses to Boca Raton. The offer was withdrawn a day later, due to a possible change in date. 

Nacrelli responded, copying SG senators. 

"Wow!" he wrote. "You claim representing a university student body may be taken too seriously? Should we care a bit less? You also claim the media, known for yellow journalism, published a story about buses and we looked foolish? We were in good light just prior? Really! Our campus action figures and inability to adequately explain to elected Florida legislators our financial progress is honorable? The constant misinformation fed to students is acceptable and not embarrassing to you?"

The paper also reports that a USF Polytechnic official told Nacrelli not to copy his fellow senators on "personal communication." But I fail to see how this is anything more than the kind of internal bickering that is frequent in representative government bodies, and which is arguably in the public interest where matters of execution of duties and fitness for office are involved. (Gasp! A government where not everyone is nice to each other all the time? Heaven forbid! Someone tell Congress!) 

As Nacrelli says to The Oracle, "My claims in emails were valid and my questions were genuine and worthy of response by recipient." I think the onus is on USF Polytechnic to prove that they are not protected speech. 

As of the article’s printing, holds were placed on Nacrelli’s student records, and he was ordered to meet with USF officials this week or else risk having his student status further endangered. That means he already has been punished for what appears to be fully protected speech. FIRE is watching USF Polytechnic closely as it weighs punishing this student government official further.