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Putting speech in its place 

After the Watergate scandal broke, President Nixon desperately sought to rebuild his shattered reputation. He scoured the country for a place to give his comeback speech -- entitled "What's Right with America" -- somewhere that would be free of the contentious debate and protests surrounding himself and the Vietnam debacle. Surprisingly, Nixon actually found such a location on a college campus -- the campus of the five-year-old Florida Technological College.

Pundits thought he'd lash back at critics on that sweltering afternoon of June 8, 1973, but he didn't. Instead, he turned his 28-minute speech into a lecture on economics and foreign policy. True, his political career never rebounded, but he did succeed in escaping throngs of dissenters. The area roped off for "protesters" remained empty the entire day, while a crowd of 8,000 cheered on the man who would soon resign in disgrace.

You might think that was impossible on any Vietnam-era campus, most of which were hotbeds for hippies and social activists. But not this one. Even in its infancy, the now-rechristened University of Central Florida was passive.

"Those were the days when our students were mostly benign," says university spokesman Dean McFall. "That's changed some."

As the number of students -- now numbering more than 30,000 -- increased, UCF slowly has outgrown its conservative, commuter-school reputation. It currently attracts students from across the state and nation -- students who have brought with them a more diverse, and sometimes liberal, world view. UCF finally is getting student-run chapters of organizations such as Amnesty International, Free the Planet, Free Tibet, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), and the Green and Libertarian parties -- groups that have long flourished on many other campuses.

Yet UCF's new generation of activists complains that the administration isn't keeping up with its students. "There's a lot of forward thinkers [on campus]," says sophomore and NORML representative Josh Edmundson. "I don't see it being nurtured by the system."

As evidence, they point to UCF's self-described "Free Speech Area," an 80-foot-by-100-foot swath of grass southeast of the library dedicated to, well, free speech. Here, evangelists, pro- and anti-abortion groups, environmentalists and a myriad of others take their turns trying to bring passing students around to their points of view.

The free-speech zone itself isn't the problem. The problem is, that's the only place the administration allows any protests and demonstrations to take place.

The question isn't whether the policy is legal -- it is -- but whether it's proper in a university setting. Is UCF willing to encourage critical thinking about social issues on campus? The activists soon will find out.

On Friday, Feb. 22, members of the umbrella UCF Progressive Council, which comprises many of the university's budding activist groups, will gather in the free-speech zone to call for its extermination.

"People on this campus need more information," says Free the Planet's Lisa Shuford. By confining all of the groups to one space, the administration is preventing that from happening, she says.

It happened two weeks ago, when Shuford, Jessica Larson and Kristen Trotter -- each one of them Free the Planet activists -- picketed a career fair at the UCF Arena. The university had invited corporations such as Kraft Foods and Wal-Mart to attend, and Shuford and her companions stood outside with cardboard signs pointing out that Kraft is owned by Marlboro-maker Philip Morris, and Wal-Mart doesn't let employees unionize.

For about 20 minutes, they gave their homemade flyers to passers-by. Then, a campus police officer told them they had to go. The university doesn't permit such activity outside of "the zone," as is made clear in UCF's Golden Rule handbook of regulations.

Under the "Rules of Conduct" section, UCF also outlaws "an act which intentionally impairs, interferes with or obstructs the orderly conduct, processes and functions of the university"; and "an act, which aids, abets or procures another person to breach the peace on the university premises or at university sponsored/related functions."

Pretty standard, right? Perhaps not. "Protesting the administration would interfere with the functions of the university," Larson points out.

The motives behind the rules seem harmless enough. UCF officials say they don't want the campus littered with discarded flyers or students to be harassed everywhere they go. If the students want to avoid shouting street preachers, they can. Though it's a public university, UCF can restrict where individuals go on campus. For instance, not just anyone can stroll into the dorms or classrooms.

The policy nonetheless keeps protesters away from most of the student body. "It's restrictive," Shuford complains. Very few of the students they could reach in the free-speech zone were headed for the job fair, the activists point out. By handing leaflets to those going inside the fair, potential employees might at least briefly think about the corporations they interview with.

"If anything, [expanding the free-speech area] will give us the opportunity to open people's eyes," Shuford says. "[Otherwise] we're never going to reach those people." Perhaps, she suggests, that's what university officials want.

"Universities have always been centers of progressive thought," Trotter adds. "That is lacking on this campus. It would be nice to bring that [change] about."

UCF will never be like the University of California at Berkeley, which led the nation's free-speech movement in the early 1960s and continues to be a hotbed of countercultural and radical thinking. But a number of students interviewed cite the free-thinking attitudes of that famed institution as their far-off goal, particularly as their campus continues to diversify. While the recent influx of full-time students is moving UCF away from being a commuter-school without much campus life, the university is still known primarily for its high-tech and business programs rather than the liberal arts.

There are, however, signs that the times are indeed a changin'. Two weeks ago, nearly two dozen students showed up at a gas station across from campus for Free the Planet's demonstration against Chevron's offshore drilling; some of the protesters dressed as sealife. After three weeks as an official club, NORML has more than 300 on its mailing list. There's even a student chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union being formed.

"My friends and I thought that it could only improve the quality of education at UCF to add the free exchange of ideas," says Matt Helfant, a senior who is organizing the ACLU club.

But when it comes to expanding the free-speech zone, student activists doubt the university will be easily persuaded to change its stance. Still, as Helfant says, even if the organizers of this week's protest lose, they can come up winners. "I hope this ... will be a vehicle for more political action on campus," he says. "We can bring together so many people."


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