The University of South Florida has suspended activist organization Students for a Democratic Society for violating its policy on face-to-face events amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But the group’s members are saying this is the university attempting to suppress their voices.
For Taylor Cook, a member of USF’s Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, too much is at stake in the world to sit by.
“We’re in a pretty important political climate right now where we can’t just top having events,” Cook said. It’s a really important time to be organizing right now.”
A moment to rise
Since returning to campus, SDS has held face-to-face events, mostly off-campus, to protest police killings of Black people, budget cuts at USF, and demonstrations surrounding the election. Cook said all of those events followed CDC guidelines for mitigating the spread of COVID-19
“We have a lot of those outside,” Cook said. “We ask people to social distance, we bring extra masks to all of our events just in case someone comes and they don’t have a mask. And if they do and they’re not wearing it we ask them to please wear it. We pass out hand sanitizer frequently.”
But USF’s Dean of Students Danielle McDonald said it doesn’t matter what the organization does. The university’s rules are clear.
“They are violating our restrictions that are put in place for the health and safety of the campus of having events,” McDonald said.
The organization is currently under interim suspension stemming from an event it held on Oct. 5 on Fowler Ave and 50th St, near the campus. The event was part of the organization’s “Chop the Top” initiative. It calls for the University Police and top administrators to take pay cuts instead of laying employees off and closing the College of Education.
Despite the suspension, Cook said SDS remains committed to its goals.
“Teachers are important, workers are important. We have to keep pushing on whether USF wants to oppress us or not,” she said. “We want USF to put people over profit and that’s exactly what we’re gonna make them do.”
SDS planned a call-in event to Dean McDonald’s office Friday, urging the university to drop the charges. McDonald said she supports activism like the call-in.
“I think that you can be activists and you can express that without having events and without compromising the health and safety of our community,” she said.
SDS is currently prohibited from activity until a formal hearing scheduled for the end of the semester. McDonald said the timing is due to caseloads, but Cook said she doesn’t believe it.
“I definitely think they did that to suppress us,” she said.
Cook alleged the university is being hypocritical. It allowed right-wing personality Kaitlin Bennett to come on campus and interview students. McDonald though, said the controversial visit didn’t violate the school’s event policy.
“Kaitlin Bennet did not advertise her coming to campus. She did not invite the community to come to it. And that’s why her appearance was not considered an event,” McDonald said. “When an organization publicizes something on social media and invites the public to attend, that’s when it hits the event definition.”
McDonald said the university is committed to a tradition of supporting speech and discourse. But it has to be content-neutral and consistent in its policies. It doesn’t matter what you’re organization represents, she said, so long as it follows guidelines.
“These are different times in terms of making sure that our community is safe,” she said. “And the way that we had to do that is creating restrictions and policies right now that we apply consistently to all student organizations.”
Cook said if the university continues to have in-person classes, sporting events and for-profit activities, she’s not buying it.
“I don’t think USF cares about safety,” she said. “USF cares about making money.”
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