FL student activists gear up: ‘I feel empowered, even in the face of fear right now’

Ahead of fall semester, groups prepare to protest higher ed changes across FL’s universities

By: - August 18, 2023 7:00 am

The Florida State University chapter of Students for a Democratic Society holds a protest on Aug. 9 in front of the Leon County Clerk of Courts and Comptroller. The students gathered in solidarity with a group arrested during a protest at the University of South Florida. (Jackie Llanos/Florida Phoenix)

Weeks before the academic year starts at Florida’s public universities, chants of student activists have already pierced Tallahassee.

“Drop the charges!” “Free the Tampa 5!” “Protesting is not a crime!” rang out from a group of about 10 as cars drove by and honked in the state capital.

Florida State University students had gathered across the street from the Old Capitol in solidarity with former University of South Florida students and a staff member who had been arrested following a March 6 protest at the USF campus. At least four members in the USF group were at a hearing Aug. 9 in Tampa, according to Hillsborough County court records, as the FSU students showed their support upstate.

The USF group is not the only one confronting legal problems following a spring of demonstrations across college campuses. Libby Harrity, a former student Senate president at New College of Florida, agreed to never set foot on campus to avoid battery charges. She was accused of spitting at trustee Christopher Rufo during Gov. Ron DeSantis’ bill signing in May at the university.

“Being forced out as I am has been completely devastating for me,” Harrity told Florida Phoenix in a phone interview.

She said that every public university in Florida is at risk of going down the same path as New College.

“Don’t let them make me some kind of example to scare you,” Harrity said.


Despite these outcomes, groups that rallied against higher education attacks during the past legislative session are preparing to protest changes stemming from the law DeSantis signed at New College, the public liberal arts university in Sarasota.

That legislation, SB 266, targets diversity, equity, and inclusion by prohibiting public funding for such DEI initiatives. The law also weakens tenure protections and prohibits any instruction based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States.

“I, unfortunately, only see these types of arrests and events happening more and more as we go into the next legislative session, but it’s really courageous, and I think it’s only emboldened us to make sure that our voices are heard that much more as we fight for each other,” FSU student Jayden D’Onofrio said. He is the president of Florida for Voters of Tomorrow, a group aimed at engaging Gen Z in politics.

DeSantis’ and the GOP’s focus on college campuses has made it easier to motivate political action in universities, Logan Rubenstein said. The sophomore is president of the College Democrats at the University of Central Florida. Before attending UCF, he started advocating for gun reform following the mass shooting at his school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. What is happening in Florida universities should not be underrated, he said.

“There’s a big influx of students on campus who agree with the issues, because it’s one thing to be like, ‘Vote for Joe Biden for president,’ and a lot of students are wondering, ‘How does that affect me personally?'” he said in a phone interview. “But, when you can go to those people and say, ‘This is what Republicans are doing to your education, to your freedom of speech, to your college campus,’ it resonates a lot more on a personal level to students.

“I think there will be a lot more protests, and a lot more enthusiasm and energy on these college campuses this year.”


So far, New College has demonstrated the expansive reach of the law. Most recently, the school’s Board of Trustees voted to start dismantling the gender studies program, as reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The move is already facing a legal challenge from faculty and students.

New College changed over the summer, but so have its student activists, fifth-year Yesenia Gonzalez said. Member of the Students for Educational Freedom campus group took advantage of the term break learn how to organize better.

“Coming into the school year we’ll have a more organized push, and we’re being more thoughtful about where the current administration’s pressure points are and how we can leverage them to negotiate better,” she said.

“They’ve had time to prepare; they’ve had time to make changes that they couldn’t make while we were there, but we’re coming back as well, and we are much stronger and much more unified than before. I feel empowered, even in the face of fear right now.”

Meanwhile, other universities haven’t implemented drastic changes like the ones at New College. An FSU spokesperson told the Phoenix at the beginning of August that the institution was waiting on the Board of Governors, the umbrella organization that oversees the state university system, to issue guidance on curricula. The governors will convene from Aug. 29-30. The public colleges start classes before then.

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Jackie Llanos
Jackie Llanos

Jackie is a recent graduate of the University of Richmond. She has interned at Nashville Public Radio, Virginia Public Media and Virginia Mercury.