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UF students disrupt campus forum featuring college president finalist Ben Sasse

Student protestors wave signs and chant ‚hey hey, ho ho, Ben Sasse has got to go.

Lawrence Simmons / USA Today Network

Students protest during an open forum discussion with Sen. Ben Sasse at Emerson Alumni Hall at the University of Florida.

After the University of Florida announced Sen. Ben Sasse last week as the only finalist for its open presidential position, hundreds of students greeted him on the Gainesville campus on Monday afternoon with a chorus of boos — and disruption that forced a moderated student discussion to end early, and a panel for staff to be moved to a livestream format.

At the second of three public forums for Sasse to discuss his potential UF presidency, student protestors flooded the lobby of Emerson Alumni Hall chanting, “Hey hey! Ho ho! Ben Sasse has got to go!”

“Sasse attempted to persevere by answering moderated questions,” according to a report by student newspaper, The Florida Alligator, “but the shouts began to drown out his responses.”

He then decided to cut the student session short, at which point protestors entered the conference room where Sasse had been speaking.

The university then scrapped the plan to host the subsequent employee session in-person — moving it to an online format to avoid noise.

Students reportedly occupied the hall’s lobby for roughly an hour, demanding Sasse decline the job and the university release its withheld list of 12 candidates interviewed for the position before it unanimously recommended Sasse. Students called for UF to select a president that demonstrates “consistent advocacy and respect for people of all sexual orientations, genders, and races.”

Responding to questions about how he would protect LGBTQ individuals, Sasse said anti-discrimination law is set, and no UF policies will be under review that would call that into question. Asked about Florida’s “Stop WOKE Act” — which FIRE is currently challenging in federal court, where UF is incorrectly arguing that faculty members “do not have an individual right to academic freedom” — Sasse responded that he needs “to learn a lot more to really understand what it is,” but added that “academic freedom is obviously essential.”

After the employee session was moved online, Sasse was asked about the protests and disruption. The senator said, “Obviously I wish they didn’t have the position that they have,” before adding, to his credit, “but I strongly support the right of people to protest and exercise their free speech rights.”

The First Amendment does not require peaceful protest to be civil or respectful; it can be loud, passionate, angry, distracting — even offensive or hateful. But it must not infringe others’ right to speak and be heard. When individuals effectively shut down expressive events by causing substantial disruption, they exercise what’s known as the “heckler’s veto.” Hecklers who force events to be canceled, halted, or moved online at the last minute disrupt both the speaker’s right to speak and the audience’s right to listen to, learn from, and engage with the speaker — including by asking tough questions.

Student protestors wave signs
Student protestors wave signs and chant "Hey hey, ho ho, Ben Sasse has got to go" at Emerson Alumni Hall at the University of Florida. (Lawren Simmons / USA Today Network)

When protestors peacefully exercise their rights, FIRE will be there to defend them. But when protestors cross the line by occupying and creating substantial disorder in or near event spaces, universities must intervene to protect the speaker’s and listeners’ rights. Protests that rise to the level of shouting down speakers and forcing the cancellation of live sessions certainly run counter to the culture of free speech that FIRE advocates. 

Yesterday’s events at UF demonstrate the university must do more to promote that culture on campus. We hope that between now and Nov. 1, when Sasse returns to campus, UF administrators will get started.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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