After allegedly violating USF’s health and safety protocols by hosting face-to-face events both on and off campus, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was interim suspended Oct. 28 until further notice.
With the suspension, SDS is not allowed to host any events or promote its activities until the formal hearing process, in which its suspension will be further evaluated. In case SDS violates its interim suspension, USF Dean of Students Danielle McDonald said the organization could lose its organization registration, which could then result in its permanent suspension from the university.
Students involved during those events could also be referred to the Student Code of Conduct, according to McDonald.
“We try to treat all student organizations the same, right?” McDonald said. “So, if you relate this to a social fraternity or sorority or anybody else who is compromising the health and safety of our community, we could hold the student organization and the officers accountable and anyone else who may have participated in it.”
Despite its provisional suspension, SDS still plans to host a protest Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. at the intersection of North 50th Street and Fowler Avenue. SDS will demand actions ranging from community control of the police to economic relief for the unemployed and health care for all.
“We are still having the event because … post election is super important. It’s important that we keep the movement going after the election, no matter who wins,” junior and SDS officer Taylor Cook said.
The Student Conduct and Ethical Development (SCED) office informed SDS’ officers about the provisional suspension Oct. 27, a day before their protest in front of Lifsey House to protect the undergraduate programs at the College of Education (COE) and defund University Police. The email, however, was sent to former officers as its BullSync did not contain the contact information of current officers.
The report indicated that SDS violated the USF Policy 6-040 Return to Regular University Operations in COVID-19 Environment for scheduling, advertising and participating in a face-to-face event Oct. 5 against USF budget cuts.
Dean of Students Danielle McDonald sent SDS an email Oct. 17 informing that no in-person events were allowed due to COVID-19 until further notice. Despite the notice, SDS still organized multiple events both on and off campus, she said.
SDS currently faces three conduct violations, including failure to comply with an official request or directive of a university official, conduct noncompliant with university health policies and guidelines, and failure to adhere to policies.
McDonald said the provisional suspension was issued as a way to act quickly to protect the health and safety of the community.
Cook said USF’s action was an “act of political oppression.”
“Even though we’re paying this university, we were threatened with arrest before we were able to do anything,” Cook said. “I was actually really scared and really uncomfortable because we were just trying to stop the College of Education from being closed, trying to stop these harmful budget cuts from affecting our education that we pay for and laying off the workers of the university during a pandemic.”
For McDonald, most questions on USF’s policies were focused around freedom of speech, and why visitors like Kaitlin Bennett, who visited campus Oct. 7, were allowed on campus while SDS events aren’t.
An event is considered as such once it is publicized, either on social media or by word of mouth, according to McDonald. So far this semester, all face-to-face events organized by SDS have been publicized, consequently leading to its provisional suspension.
“There’s a difference between an event and free speech,” McDonald said. “If you are an individual, come on campus and you have your poster or your sign or whatever, you can have that free speech because you did not publicize that to a community to come and attend. What makes it an event is as soon as you publicize it.”
The no-event policy, however, also applies beyond campus borders, according to McDonald.
“You cannot have any face-to-face events,” McDonald said. “[COVID-19] is also off campus.”
She said the university has to be consistent with all student organizations to ensure health and safety protocols are followed.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of event it is, and doesn’t matter how great the event is or how safe you’ve done the planning, we are being consistent with all student organizations and departments that you cannot have any face-to-face event,” McDonald said.
Back in September, SDS hosted a drive-in rally in front of Lifsey House to advocate for the increase of Black faculty and counselors at USF. The protesters and organizers remained next to their own cars while some gave speeches with a megaphone.
McDonald said the university did not file any charges against SDS for its drive-in rally because, originally, the event was not supposed to have a face-to-face component.
Once McDonald knew about SDS’ Oct. 28 protest, she went to the Tampa campus prior to its start to talk directly to the officers. If the event were to still take place, she informed the organizers that they would be violating their provisional suspension as well as university policies, and could potentially face trespass, Student Code of Conduct charges and even arrest.
The event was then relocated to an off-campus location, at the corner of LeRoy Collins Boulevard and Fowler Avenue. While the university can’t prevent organizations from meeting and organizing events, the organizations could still face harsh consequences.
Knowing that the event took place despite its provisional suspension, the USF Event Response Team filed a report to the Student Code of Conduct office.
While the report only includes the Oct. 5 instance, SDS has been publicly hosting and advertising protests within the USF community. One of the most recent one took place Oct. 20, during which they protested USF’s decision to eliminate all undergraduate programs in the COE at the intersection of Fowler Avenue and North 50th Street.
After SDS was notified of its suspension, an information meeting was held Oct. 29 through Microsoft Teams with the hearing officer to discuss the student conduct process, the student organization’s due process rights and the allegations and charges.
Based on the information provided and discussed during the meeting, the hearing officer would then determine whether the interim suspension would remain, be modified or lifted. Depending on the formal hearing’s outcome, the organization could be put on probation or be given educational sanctions to make sure USF protocols and policies are being met, according to McDonald.
“Our goal is not to stop organizations from functioning or existing,” she said. “Our goal is to make sure that they are respecting the policies that are there for the health and safety of our community.”
Since SDS violated its interim suspension, McDonald said the suspension remained in place until their formal hearing process which hasn’t been scheduled yet.
Cook said SDS plans on having a call-in event toward administration to get their charges dropped. A time and place has yet to be announced.
“Why are we being suspended for that, we’re being suspended when we are standing up against the university and they’re making poor decisions on what to close and what to end like laying off workers,” Cook said. “So we think it is the act of political oppression, which is why we will be having a call-in.”
Despite the uncertainties around the situation, Cook said they are willing to take the risk during this election cycle.
“We weren’t really worried about it for a little while,” Cook said. “And we were unsure of whether we wanted to have it at first, but we think exactly what administration wants is they want to keep us quiet and make us stop organizing.”