OPINION: USF irresponsible to allow foreseeable on-campus gatherings

While the university has found virtual solutions to learning, club meetings and events, it allowed Kaitlin Bennett to make an appearance on campus with the purpose of speaking with students. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

American gun rights activist and conservative social media personality Kaitlin Bennett visited the USF Tampa campus Wednesday afternoon. She is well known for visiting college campuses to get interviews with students about controversial topics, which typically draw massive crowds and create high tensions. This visit was no different.

Bennett is far from a regular visitor taking a tour of the Tampa campus. She has over 550,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel Liberty Hangout and 390,000 followers on Twitter as of Oct. 11. USF administration should not allow famous people to visit campus during a pandemic. 

Videos of the event recorded by The Oracle’s staff showed students packed together shoulder to shoulder trying to get a chance to speak with her or just listen in. This is dangerous not only for students who were there, but the entire campus once attendees dispersed. 

University officials were informed Tuesday that Bennett would be appearing on campus, according to USF spokesperson Adam Freeman. He justified the university’s decision to let her on campus as the situation was in accordance with USF’s free speech guidelines.

“USF’s campuses remain open to visitors from the public and the university values the right for individuals to exercise free speech,” he said.

Despite abundant evidence that Bennett’s visit would result in these guidelines being crossed, it appears USF officials opted for the “don’t ask permission, ask for forgiveness” strategy. Freeman said the activist was made aware of protocols including the required use of face coverings.

“In a situation such as this with an unplanned gathering of individuals in response to a campus visitor, USF staff will attempt to seek compliance with university guidelines while also trying to minimize the risk of compromising their own safety and the safety of others in the process,” Freeman said in an email to The Oracle.

It is surprising that the university, being as strict as it is with its students about enforcing physical distancing and other guidelines, would allow a person who is known to create large and sometimes aggressive situations to be present on campus for four hours after a huge, guideline-breaking crowd formed around her.

Much has changed on campus since the start of the pandemic to create a safe environment for students. Prior to the campus reopening, the university invested over $2.3 million in physical distancing signage, stickers and caution tape to hang across campus, according to USF Media Relations Manager Althea Paul in an Aug. 24 Oracle article.

The non-socially distanced crowd that formed due to Bennett’s presence was predictable and could have been avoided with a blanket policy prohibiting visitors who are in the public eye. Instead, the university should have directed her to a virtual format of engaging with students. 

College campuses are the right place to promote free speech, but not when it comes at the expense of student safety.

Just last week, another internet personality, Cody Ko, hosted an online event with USF students for Homecoming week. Imagine the uproar if USF officials allowed him to visit campus to speak with students without any prior plans on how students would follow social distancing guidelines.

Not only has the university adjusted its curriculum to be completely virtual, other events and clubs have made the transition. Just last week, the Homecoming week events were held virtually through Microsoft Teams or Degy World, an immersive virtual event platform. 

Well-known visitors who USF knows will be coming to campus should be strongly advised to find creative solutions like using Microsoft Teams Q&As or other virtual platforms to connect with their large fan bases. The university has even made a point to do the same with hired speakers, because the administration appears to have the common sense to piece together that famous people naturally generate crowds. As COVID-19 continues to affect lives and kill thousands, USF needs to turn celebrities away from visiting campus in the future.