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Letter to the Editor: Recalling UNF’s celebration of civil disobedience

Text box that reads "Letter to the Editor." Graphic by Lianna Norman.
Text box that reads “Letter to the Editor.” Graphic by Lianna Norman.

In November 2015, the University of North Florida’s English and Art Departments unveiled a new sculpture in the UNF Peace Plaza: the Henry David Thoreau Table for Civil Disobedience. In the website description of the Thoreau Table, Dr. Jason Mauro writes, “Thoreau warns us that every institution, including our own University, is in danger of passively and invisibly doing violence to even its most sacred principles, and this monument and the essay it celebrates stand as a reminder that the strongest institutions are the ones that continually question their own virtue.”

The Thoreau Table stands as a physical embodiment of civil disobedience, urging onlookers to consistently interrogate ourselves and the world around us. In line with this ethos, students from ENC 4930 Network Culture constructed what media scholar Gregory Ulmer terms a MEmorial—an electronic monument—surrounding the Thoreau Table at its dedication ceremony. These students integrated photographs of numerous peaceful protests into trigger images around the UNF Peace Plaza. This endeavor was built upon Mark Swarek’s “Occupy Wall Street AR,” inviting individuals to contribute their protest images, irrespective of their role within the university community, to be digitally placed at Thoreau’s Table.

Less than a decade later, on the afternoon of April 30, 2024, UNF students pitched tents on the campus Green in their own act of peaceful protest, one in solidarity with similar pro-Palestine encampments at universities across the nation. Two days later, one day before UNF’s Spring Commencement ceremony and hours before UNF chose to follow the lead of other universities, including Columbia, by sending riot police to arrest the remaining protestors and clear the encampment, President Limayem sent an email applauding graduates for their time spent learning “in a university community that values accountability, integrity, excellence, civility and a culture of care, and [adopting] those same values.”

Upon reading this, I am reminded of an image of a protest sign from the Columbia encampment. It says: “Columbia, why require me to read Prof. Edward Said If you don’t want me to use it?” Through their acts of protest for Gaza, these students have also surfaced how our university system, which undervalues the humanities and operates increasingly under a corporate model, remains a place where people can learn what is just and be armed with the tools to act upon this knowledge.

You cannot require that students learn to dismantle hegemonic narratives in the classroom and then prohibit them from acting upon this knowledge in the real world.

The email goes on to profess a commitment to protecting First Amendment rights but ignores the reality of selective enforcement and administrative tolerance of harassment on campus. This begs the question: why are campus “preachers” allowed to persist in their verbal and sexual harassment of passersby, while these peaceful protestors face harsh and potentially life-altering consequences?

The arrested protestors have since been released from jail, but the charges have yet to be dropped. It is now more essential than ever that the university upholds and respects its commitment to the rights of its students to engage in peaceful protest within a self-proclaimed culture of care, without fear of reprisal or intimidation.

UNF’s Thoreau Table stands as a poignant reminder that the strongest institutions are those that continually scrutinize their own integrity. As a proud graduate of UNF’s English M.A. program, a time during which my curriculum included Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, I strongly urge UNF to do so by reconsidering its actions, dropping all charges against those arrested and reaffirming its commitment to its most sacred core principles—principles which include fostering a campus environment that values free expression and open dialogue. And I can’t help but ask: UNF, why require us to read Thoreau if you don’t want us to use it?

Holly Coleman graduated from the University of North Florida in December with her master’s degree in English.


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