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Free speech group sues UCF over policies that "suppress speech"

Students at University of Central Florida campus have to abide by the school's anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies, enforced by administrative bias and discrimination incidents reponse teams.
Students at University of Central Florida campus have to abide by the school's anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies, enforced by administrative bias and discrimination incidents reponse teams.

An organization that promotes first amendment protections for college students with “unpopular ideas” is suing University of Central Florida.

Speech First filed in federal court on Feb. 16, claiming that the school's policies “suppress and punish speech.” The lawsuit centers around the complaints of three unidentified students who claim they refrain from sharing their conservative viewpoints on campus out of fear of repercussions.

Though none of these students has ever been reported or academically disciplined over their stances, Speech First President Nicole Neily said the suit aims to disband the university’s bias and discrimination response committees, as well as eliminate “broad language” from the school’s policies before something happens.

“This is preemptive," Neily said. "The way that the university has defined some of these policies is very broad and very vague, so it leaves the administration with broad discretionary power to pick winners and losers. That is not a constitutional standard.”

The students - referred to on the lawsuit as just "Student A," "Student B," and "Student C" - were explicit about the viewpoints they want to repeatedly and passionately share on campus. These included anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, and pro Trump stances, among others.

UCF said they are still reviewing the complaint and that they have a "long history of supporting free speech and open expression" on campus.

That sentiment is in the university's first paragraph of their Student Rules of Conduct.

“The right of all students to seek knowledge, debate ideas, form opinions, and freely express their ideas is fully recognized by the University of Central Florida," the document says. "The Rules of Conduct […] will not be used to impose discipline for the lawful expression of ideas."

Just last year, the UCF Student Government tried to pass a pro-Israel bill that stood against the Palestinian anti-BDS Movement. UCF SG passed a bill to use student funding to bring conservative gadfly Ben Shapiro to speak on campus, and Kaitlin Bennett, a gun-rights activist who is know for her confrontational YouTube show, also visited the campus. Anti-abortion protesters have also held demonstrations at UCF.

Neily said that liberal students used their free speech rights to protest some of those events.

"I think the students do feel a little bit under siege," she said. "Just because they're conservative, they shouldn't feel scared to express those opinions on campus."

Speech First has ties to billionaire conservative causes, but Neily said she doesn't always personally see eye-to-eye with the views of students that the non-profit represents.  She says she does believe in their inalienable right to free expression as "the founding fathers intended it" to promote a "robust exchange of ideas," particularly in intellectual spaces like universities.

"Frankly, some of the things that our students want to discuss and the viewpoints they hold, I don’t agree with either, but they should be allowed to express those on campus and not fear disciplinary repercussion,” she said.

[caption id="attachment_174686" align="alignleft" width="396"]

Speech First, an organization with ties to billionaire conservative causes, filed a federal suit against University of Central Florida on Feb. 16. The nonprofit describes itself as "committed to restoring the freedom of speech on college campuses."[/caption]

The lawsuit directly targets the school's computer policy against harassment and the Just Knights Response Team policies. It claims they violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Neily said terms like "harassment," "bullying," and "unwanted" are too vague and that students have to tailor their language to what the most sensitive student on campus might interpret their remarks to mean.

"This is where the lines are being drawn," she said. "So, I have to think, 'If someone might take this amiss, should  I say it, or not?' I, just out of an abundance of caution, I'm not going to talk because I don't know what I can get in trouble for."

Neily said all three students cited their concerns over the firing of former UCF psychology instructor Dr. Charles Negy. “All of them echoed, ‘If this could happen to a tenured professor, what would happen to me,'" she said.

Negy came under fire last year over comments he made on social media. Students, faculty, and even UCF president Dr. Alexander Cartwright condemned the comments as racist.

UCF began an investigation into Negy, but he was ultimately fired for fostering a “hostile” environment and repeatedly violating school conduct, including his failure to report a student's sexual assault case, not for his comments on social media.

Chad Binette, UCF Communcations assistant vice president, said that, while the school looks into Speech First's claims, they will continue to uphold their commitment to fighting bias and discrimination on campus.

"We also expect our students and employees to follow state and federal laws that guarantee freedom from unlawful discrimination, and our policies are meant to ensure that," Binette said in an email.

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