It’s amazing how quickly things can change.
On Wednesday, Sami Al-Arian supporters were preparing to welcome the professor back to USF after almost 480 days of exile. They had made plans for a triumphant “March for Justice” from USF’s main Fowler Avenue entrance to the Phyllis P. Marshall Center, where his grievance hearing was scheduled to be held.
But all of those plans were derailed Thursday afternoon following a decisive move from the administration.
At about 2 p.m., university media relations sent out an announcement that Al-Arian’s grievance proceeding had been moved to the Embassy Suites on Fowler Avenue.
In addition, protesters who had planned to march throughout campus would be provided with a “designated area … for those who wish to express their opinions.” By all appearances, this area will be similar to the controversial “free speech zones” set up outside the Sun Dome during the visit of President George W. Bush.
USF media relations coordinator Michelle Carlyon said the university’s decision to move the proceeding was not an effort to keep Al-Arian and his supporters out of the heart of campus.
“We just want the opportunity for them to have as much space as they need to express their opinions,” Carlyon said.
Carlyon said since the university isn’t organizing any event, they are not sure how many people will be present. But, she said, the move to the Embassy Suites was an effort to provide a large protest area and more ample parking for the event.
Al-Arian and faculty union president Roy Weatherford, who filed grievances for Al-Arian on Jan. 6, suggest the university had a more devious reason for the move.
“Once again, the USF administration fails the free speech test,” Al-Arian said. “It appears that the thought process of the decision-makers is more reminiscent of the behavior of a security apparatus than an academic institution.”
Al-Arian said the university called him Thursday and “warned” him not to come onto campus.
Weatherford said normally the grievance hearing is held in the administration building. He said it’s the right of everyone to have that done.
Al-Arian said he regrets the university’s decision.
“I think that they are the ones that need to answer … why am I being treated differently than anyone else. Does it have to do with my ethnicity? Does it have to do with my religion? Why am I being discriminated against?”
Al-Arian said the march organized by students will now be from USF’s main entrance down Fowler Avenue to the Embassy Suites.
He was unsure late Thursday night if he would participate.
Weatherford said the proceedings will now take place on the second floor of the Embassy Suites building. He joins Al-Arian in expressing disapproval toward the administration.
“I think it’s unfortunate for the university that we treat some people different from other people because of the nature of their beliefs and their political supporters,” Weatherford said.
Weatherford also said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if another grievance came from Thursday’s decision.
Sgt. Mike Klingebiel, spokesman for University Police, said the department is aware of the events scheduled for today. He said the Embassy Suites, located on the southwest corner of campus, is in UP’s jurisdiction. He said extra units will be dispatched to the scene if they are needed.
“We’re aware (that it’s) a sensitive situation,” Klingebiel said.
The grievance proceeding is scheduled for 3:30 today on the second floor of the Embassy Suites.