A guide to free expression & assembly at UCF

Campus Free Expression Act FAQ

What is the Campus Free Expression Act?

The Campus Free Expression Act, at Florida Statutes s. 1004.097, is a new law directed at public colleges and universities in the Florida. The Act directs public colleges and universities to allow visitors and other uninvited speakers to freely use “outdoor areas of campus” for expressive activities; permits the college or university to establish reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on such use; prohibits “free speech zones” or policies that restrict speech to particular areas of the campus; and prohibits students, faculty, or staff of the public college or university from materially disrupting previously scheduled or reserved activities on the campus.

Hey, what happened to the free assembly zones? Are they gone?

The areas of campus are still there, but non-university persons and other visitors to campus are no longer limited to any particular locations on campus for expressive activities. With the adoption of the Campus Free Expression Act, visitors to campus cannot be limited to certain areas or zones for purposes of engaging in speech and other expressive activities. This is similar to the rights students have always had to use the campus grounds. Students and student groups are welcome to make reservations to use certain campus locations, including locations that were previously free assembly zones, for organized gatherings or other events, subject to other campus regulations that may apply.

Did the Legislature change this law because UCF was not committed to free speech?

No. UCF has always been and remains committed to free speech. The reality here at UCF is that UCF has always supported free speech – by students, by employees, by invited speakers, and by uninvited speakers. UCF has not had any instances where events were materially disrupted or were canceled or postponed due to disruption.

What “outdoor areas of campus” are covered by the new Act?

The Act addresses “outdoor areas of campus,” which are defined as outdoor spaces on the campus to which all members of the campus community are commonly allowed. The Act specifically talks about grassy areas, walkways, and similar “common areas.”

What “outdoor areas of campus” are not covered by the new act?

The Act defines “outdoor areas of campus” in a way that excludes “outdoor areas of campus to which access is restricted.” At UCF, this includes such outdoor areas as athletic fields, recreational fields, Burnett House grounds, the yards of individual Greek Park Housing units; and the Creative School for Children yard and playground.

What is “material and substantial disruption?”

The Act says that “material and substantial disruption” means “any conduct that intentionally and significantly hinders another person’s or group’s expressive rights.” The Act also says that “material and substantial disruption” does NOT include “conduct that is protected under the First Amendment” including such First Amendment conduct as “lawful protests and counterprotests in the outdoor areas of campus or minor, brief, or fleeting nonviolent disruptions that are isolated or brief in duration.” We believe that this definition, in less legal terms, says that material and substantial disruption means that the expressive rights of another are so interfered with that they effectively cannot exercise their rights to engage in expressive activities. What is clear is that a peaceful counterprotest is not materially and substantially disruptive unless it makes it unreasonable for a speaker to try to continue their expressive activity.

Does this new law mean there can be no reservations of outdoor areas of campus?

No. Students and student groups can make reservations to hold events or assemblies in outdoor areas of campus. Please work with the Office of Student Involvement if you wish to do so. UCF will be revising its policies and rules to clarify reservations for outdoor areas of campus and also for event planning. UCF believes that campus departments, students, and student groups constitute a special constituency when it comes to UCF, its resources, and its campus. Also, remember that speakers engaged in a previously scheduled event cannot be disrupted by a speaker who shows up unannounced and wants to use the same space – the one with the reservation/previously scheduled activity will have priority in the space.

What about Market Day and other events where vendors are on campus?

The Campus Free Expression Act does not address what is known as “commercial speech.” Commercial speech is speech in which the individual is engaged in commerce, the intended audience is actual or potential consumers (or is commercial), and the content of the message is commercial. Basically, commercial speech is when someone is trying to sell something or otherwise engage in a transaction for some value – the value doesn’t have to be monetary. Further, Market Day is an organized and prescheduled event where vendors make reservations – so the event space will be restricted to the purposes of the event.

What does this new law mean for me as a student?

Very little. It remains true that nobody is permitted to materially disrupt the expressive activities of others or materially disrupt previously scheduled or reserved activities on the campus. You still have the same free speech rights you had before. One change may be that you have some additional competition for open outdoor areas of campus in which to engage in expressive activities. Another possible change you might notice is that, because, the law places an emphasis on not disrupting expressive activities of others, prohibitions on such disruption will be strengthened.

Does this new Act mean that some person can be outside my residence hall window at 2am talking loudly about declining honeybee populations?

No, not at all – and it wouldn’t matter what the topic was. UCF recognizes that campus is home for many students – and, therefore, UCF does not permit speakers or events between 10pm and 8am Sunday through Thursday and midnight and 8m Friday and Saturday. Additionally, UCF does not permit individuals or groups to be disruptive when they engage in expressive activities. There are various ways that speech activities could be considered disruptive. For example, a speaker cannot block traffic or interfere with people’s ability to get in and out of campus buildings. A speaker cannot use amplified sound unless specifically permitted by UCF. A speaker cannot locate himself right outside of a classroom and speak in a manner that disrupts a class going on. A speaker cannot interfere with the rights of others to speak – so, a speaker cannot use the space being used by another speaker who has a reservation, cannot disrupt a campus event occurring at the same time, and cannot shout down another speaker. Additionally, UCF does not allow speakers to violate the law – so UCF does not permit speakers to be violent, to damage property, or to criminally threaten or assault others.

I like to gather with my friends on campus to talk politics. We have a particular spot that we always use. What happens if I show up one day and somebody is already there and talking about another topic?

If you did not reserve the space for your plans, then the speaker who is there before you has priority in that space at that time. But that’s okay, because there are plenty of other outdoor spaces on campus – just find another one and go there with your friends to talk politics. And, remember to talk to the Office of Student Involvement about making a reservation for future gatherings of your group.

Can someone record a conversation with me on campus and post the video?

It depends. The Act says that the outdoor areas of campus are a public area. If the conversation is occurring in an “outdoor area of campus” and the speaker (whether a student, employee, or campus visitor) is purposely speaking loudly enough to be heard by passers-by, or the conversation is occurring where the speaker knows that others can listen in, then the speaker likely has no reasonable expectation of privacy in that setting, and the speaker can be recorded and that recording can be posted online. But if the participants in a conversation are trying not to be overheard and have positioned themselves away from others, even if they are in an outdoor area of campus, they may have a reasonable expectation of privacy in that conversation and, if so, should not be recorded. We are aware that some people visit our campus to talk about controversial topics, hoping to get into a heated debate with our students, record the encounter, and then post it in a way that casts a negative light on our students. Just remember, you have no obligation to stop and listen to or engage with anyone. Likewise, if you are the one speaking, nobody has to stop and listen to or engage with you.

But people can’t just come to UCF’s campus and engage in hate speech, can they?

“Hate speech” is a term that does not have a hard and fast definition in the law, because people use the term in various ways. But to the extent that ‘hate speech’ is defined as speech expressing generalized hatred of a particular group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, sexual expression, sex, age, or disability, then, yes, people can come to campus and engage in hate speech – so long as they do not become disruptive to campus operations or violate the law in doing so. This is a hard thing for many people to accept, but it is the result of the historical placement of free speech as one of the most strongly protected rights in our political system. The First Amendment does have limits. For example, the First Amendment does not protect speech where a speaker targets a particular individual (or small identified group of individuals) for harm, such as a true threat of physical violence. The First Amendment also does not protect targeted harassment that interferes in a severe or pervasive manner with a particular student’s (or a particular identifiable group of students’) ability to participate in the educational programming of the University. The First Amendment also does not protect a speaker who disrupts campus operations while speaking, such as by blocking the entrance to a building. So while offensive speech cannot be restricted by UCF because of the offense or emotional distress that it causes, behavior by a speaker that violates the law or disrupts the functioning of the University can be stopped. This is a very brief summary of what is a very complicated area of the law, so please understand that this answer is necessarily incomplete.