Opinion: UWF administration holds the right to regulate free speech

By Alicia Adams
Staff Writer

If you are a student at the University of West Florida, chances are you have witnessed a peaceful protest or spirited speech while on your way to class or the library; however, many students do not realize the rules and regulations UWF administration has in place regarding “public expression,” or free speech.

There are four types of forums for the use of public expression: traditional public forum; designated public forum; limited public forum; and non-public forum. Under the UWF Regulation for public expression, the university describes an area on campus as a designated public forum.

A designated public forum is defined as “government property that is not a public forum, but that has been intentionally opened up for public discourse.” The specified region for unregulated public expression on campus is “the area northwest of the Pace Library in between the parallel service roads, at GPS coordinates 30º 33′ 03.68″ N and 87º 13′ 02.56″ W,” according to the regulation.

Before December 2013, students and other members of the UWF community were granted the Cannon Green — the area between the library and the Commons — for their First Amendment rights. However, in late 2013, the UWF regulation was amended and the small area in front of John C. Pace Library, between the old dorm buildings and Building 36, was the designated public forum where one can speak freely with no regulation from the administration.

The regulation was again amended July 27, 2017. Some students suggested to the administration that a sign be put up in the area; before the Fall 2017 semester, the university added a sign marking the purpose of the new area.

On any given day, you will see a variety of speakers in the free speech area; anyone from a group of Christians from a local church who hand out pamphlets to passersby to Joey the “sign guy,” a student who held signs highlighting social injustices after the 2016 election.

“I would prefer the zone to be somewhere else,” Natalie Rockett, UWF student, said referring to the previous designated space. “I go in and out of the library multiple times a day and I have to walk through the zone to get to class.”

Most students go through their time at UWF unaware of the existence of the free speech area, but they become aware of the problem a small space can cause when it becomes congested with bodies. Luckily, Rockett got her wish and the space is now in a more convenient place.

One of the speakers who frequently takes advantage of the public expression zone on campus is Joshua Joscelyn, a 2008 graduate of UWF with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Joscelyn is a member of the Independence Baptist Church of Belleview and works in marketing and public relations.

Joscelyn has used this space to speak to students about his religious beliefs on multiple occasions. Many do not agree with his words and interact with him in negative ways. Campus police often are close by to make sure nothing gets out of hand.

When Joscelyn visits campus, many students can be seen lining the sidewalks and stairs of the library entrance, and one may expect to find it hard to even reach the library. Dozens of students crowd around, listening, discussing their own views amongst themselves or yelling back at the speaker.

“The feedback is usually the same,” Joscelyn said. “My purpose here is to let people know that the common view of Christianity, of going to church and repenting your sins, is not correct.”

Students may visit the Commons to register to speak or protest in any other area of the campus; however, the university has the right to approve or disapprove your request “according to the policies set forth in the locations/buildings/facilities in which they are to be held,” according to the regulation.

“I like that we have a designated zone. It’s a great compromise,” Brennen Beckwith, a technical theater major, said. “If people could protest or hand out fliers anywhere I wouldn’t feel comfortable on campus.”

Madison Murphy, an art major, said, “I went to a college that the whole campus was open and while you heard more about different things you were also constantly getting bombarded with religious zealots telling you [that] you were going to go to hell which made it feel a little unsafe. So I like the library zone.”

While the First Amendment grants us the right to speak our minds, public universities are regulated by the government, which has the right to put forth restrictions based on time, place, content, noise level and obstruction of daily operations.

Many people may think the university is oppressing our First Amendment rights by designating a specific area, but they are, in fact, not. If the administration allowed unregulated public expression everywhere on campus, it would likely cause a mass disturbance. The current designated free speech zone is in an area where students can have their opinions heard, but not close enough to any classrooms to produce a disruption.