1A – University of North Florida

University of North Florida Violates Students’ Rights

About the Case

As SLF predicted last summer, universities continue to use COVID-19 reporting forms to deny students their freedom of expression and their due process rights. In an effort to stop conservative students from recruiting students to join their organization, the University of North Florida claims-without any evidence- that the students violated the school’s Covid policies and is subjecting the students to disciplinary hearings where they may face sanctions even though they did nothing wrong. SLF has sent a letter to the school demanding that they produce evidence of the alleged violation or let the students freely exercise their First Amendment rights.

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The UNF conservative and libertarian students received a letter from officials saying that they were reported for violating campus COVID policies while recruiting new members for their organization. The only problem? There is no evidence supporting the claim. The students insist that they complied with COVID guidelines at all times. But it’s their word against the anonymous COVID report—and right now, the anonymous COVID report is winning.

Without investigating the claim, UNF officials are now demanding that the students attend a hearing where they will face sanctions for their actions. They can only appeal the decision to a single administrator, who ultimately chooses what discipline to impose.

The U.S. Constitution forbids viewpoint discrimination.  Viewpoint discrimination occurs when a university either promotes or discourages speech based on beliefs or ideologies. Viewpoint-based restrictions are never constitutional. When a public university bans discussion of certain topics or prohibits certain speech activities from occurring, the restriction is considered content-based. Unless a university can demonstrate a compelling government interest, content-based restrictions cannot survive judicial review.A university must show that its speech restriction is content-neutral and only restricts the time, place, or manner of speech.

The Constitution protects every protesting, tabling, distributing flyers, posting signs, and publishing articles. This is even affirmed in Florida state law. Most importantly, state and federal law protect speech that offends others, including speech that some consider “hateful.” A school cannot single out speech it finds offensive, even if the entire student body is offended. Here, UNF attempts to do exactly that. It has told students that they cannot post signs that might be considered offensive. In doing so, the University has engaged in content and viewpoint based discrimination because it attacks the views of the poster’s creator and the words or images that comprise the poster itself. As such, UNF’s actions fail constitutional muster and violate state and federal law.

In its letter, SLF urges UNF to affirm its commitment to protecting the First Amendment rights of all students. Specifically, SLF requests that you (1) revise UNF policies, both written and verbal, that violate state and federal law by discriminating against the viewpoint and content of speech; (2) ensure that all evidence, including sources of information, are included in charge letters; (3) clarify which consequences accompany specific violations of the Student Code of Conduct; and (4) revise the Code of Conduct to remedy the other due process deficiencies outlined in this letter.

Case Status

Pre-Litigation

Court

N/A

Why This Matters

Covid-19 reporting forms like the one used by UNF, are vehicles for infringing on student’s First Amendment rights. As we’ve seen these past few years, “cancel culture” is a pandemic itself that plagues social media. One need only say something that could be perceived in a remotely offensive way, and he is shouted down, unfollowed on social media, threatened, and even fired from work or expelled from school.

Unfortunately, nowhere is “cancel culture” more visible than college campuses. With reporting forms at students’ fingertips, students wishing to prevent a controversial speaker from visiting campus or to stop a student organization from garnering interest in their cause can simply report members of that organization as symptomatic or disruptive. Without stricter reporting guidelines, it appears that such events could be shut down entirely with the press of a button.

These reporting forms become even more dangerous when colleges violate students’ due process rights. With respect to UNF, SLF general counsel Kimberly Hermann explains, “The students are unaware of the evidence against them or the witnesses who claim they violated COVID guidelines. They do not know what punishment they face. And they are concerned that, even if they go through the entire hearing without being punished, nothing will stop this from happening all over again.”

According to SLF attorney Cece O’Leary even more due process violations exist in the University’s Code of Conduct. She explains, “The Code of Conduct is ripe with abuses of authority. This allows UNF to shut down student speech—especially conservative speech—from every angle.”

SLF is committed to ensuring UNF remedies its unlawful policies and will continue to monitor the situation.

 

 

Why This Matters

Covid-19 reporting forms like the one used by UNF, are vehicles for infringing on student’s First Amendment rights. As we’ve seen these past few years, “cancel culture” is a pandemic itself that plagues social media. One need only say something that could be perceived in a remotely offensive way, and he is shouted down, unfollowed on social media, threatened, and even fired from work or expelled from school.

Unfortunately, nowhere is “cancel culture” more visible than college campuses. With reporting forms at students’ fingertips, students wishing to prevent a controversial speaker from visiting campus or to stop a student organization from garnering interest in their cause can simply report members of that organization as symptomatic or disruptive. Without stricter reporting guidelines, it appears that such events could be shut down entirely with the press of a button.

These reporting forms become even more dangerous when colleges violate students’ due process rights. With respect to UNF, SLF general counsel Kimberly Hermann explains, “The students are unaware of the evidence against them or the witnesses who claim they violated COVID guidelines. They do not know what punishment they face. And they are concerned that, even if they go through the entire hearing without being punished, nothing will stop this from happening all over again.”

According to SLF attorney Cece O’Leary even more due process violations exist in the University’s Code of Conduct. She explains, “The Code of Conduct is ripe with abuses of authority. This allows UNF to shut down student speech—especially conservative speech—from every angle.”

SLF is committed to ensuring UNF remedies its unlawful policies and will continue to monitor the situation.

 

 

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