After a recent increase in the number and severity of complaints against on-campus regulars like the preachers outside Cooper Hall and the occasional anti-abortion displays, USF is taking a stand.
Rather than enacting a speech code on campus, the university has decided to establish a Bias Response Team that will enable students to report incidents that make them uncomfortable on campus and allow the university to respond appropriately.
“We’re public property. We’re a public institution. We are, in effect, government.” Vice President for Student Affairs Tom Miller said. “The first amendment limits what government can do in terms of suppressing speech.”
Miller said a university should be a place where ideas are freely expressed, without shouting people down or other such tactics. In an email to the entire student body, Miller said that while the university values freedom of speech on every level, “it is certainly possible to express strong views without disparaging others.”
His email stated that the university will never suppress speech that is legally protected.
“I thought it was time for us to express ‘this is where the university stands on things,’” Miller said. “There are values that the institution holds close. We value civility; we value respect.”
In response to complaints from students who are offended by the preachers and other incidences on campus, Miller has taken a page from several other university’s books.
USF has established a workgroup that is setting the norms for the Bias Response Team that will represent the university’s views on various topics. The University of Florida (UF) has a similar program, and Miller’s counterpart in Gainesville, Anthony Desantis, said he’s glad USF isn’t starting from the bottom.
“I think it’s great; I’ve been very open in sharing information with the team down there,” Desantis said. “At any institution, when you start something new, it’s important to benchmark other schools — not re-invent the wheel.”
Like UF’s Bias Education and Response Team, USF’s group will receive bias reports that would otherwise need to be filed with the police.
“We knew that (incidents) were occurring, but there wasn’t a place to report it,” Desantis said. “And there wasn’t means -— as a campus community — to address it, appropriately.”
He and his team created various committees tasked with establishing how any incident would be addressed, marketing the team and training staff.
Similarly, USF has created a workgroup to set a standard for responding to these complaints once the team is in effect.
Miller said the intention is to better prepare students to engage with one another peacefully.
“As much as we want students to learn material we teach in the classroom, we also want them to learn the ways to disagree and debate without drawing your gun,” Miller said. “I think there are ways in which the university is becoming kinder.
“It’s a good time to be at USF.”