Tense moments rocked the University of Central Florida campus when crowds gathered in support and opposition of what UCF said was a Muslim student group’s First Amendment right to host a controversial speaker on campus Friday night.
But the event, hosted and promoted by UCF’s Muslim Student Association to dispel misconceptions about Islam, went off without any violence, even as protesters showed up to demonstrate against the speaker who Fox News reported has ties to one of the worst terrorist attacks in the nation’s history.
KnightNews.com videotaped the question section of the event, which showed some questions were allowed to be asked, creating an open dialogue and open exchange of ideas — even though not everyone was on the same page.
However, in addition to banning signs from the auditorium, UCF’s initial decision to enforce the speaker’s preference for having no video cameras almost prevented KnightNews.com from bringing this video to KnightNews.com viewers. (Watch the entire imam speech here).
Just before the speech, the focus of the First Amendment fight took a bizarre turn when media camera crews who showed up to cover the issue ended up being temporarily shut out of the speech.
UCF leaders had dispatched its police force — funded by the taxpayers — to protect the First Amendment rights of the Muslim Imam Siraj Wahhaj, who was named by a US Attorney as an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1993 World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
But when it came time for local, independent media to exercise their First Amendment rights to go inside to cover the imam’s speech in the state university, UCF administrators had its police force ready to enforce UCF’s initial decision to ban cameras from recording the speech, paid for with student fees, because the imam didn’t want cameras present.
In a Saturday statement to KnightNews.com, UCF Assistant Vice President Grant Heston told KnightNews.com it was up to the imam — not UCF administrators — to allow cameras into the speech UCF paid him $1,250 to give in one of its public classroom buildings. Heston, who insists UCF fought for camera access the whole time, didn’t provide any legal reasoning as to why the imam had more say than UCF, an entity that has earned a reputation for restricting First Amendment rights beyond what national watchdog groups consider legal means.
It appears the no camera rule wasn’t intended to ever apply to UCF’s state-run media operation produced by its public relations department, based on b-roll video KnightNews.com was shooting before the speech.
The video shows a videographer from the state-run media entity, controlled by UCF, getting stopped by UCF police while walking into the event with his camera.
You can hear the armed police officer politely tell the videographer that no video cameras are allowed, before denying his entry. The officer told him to see Heston for clarification. That’s when the videographer, who was clearly surprised he was stopped, confirmed he was sent by Heston, UCF’s media spokesman, to go videotape the event. Meanwhile, during the same time, the independent media was being told by Heston no video cameras were allowed.
Heston downplayed the concerns of media organizations who were initially told they couldn’t videotape the speech at the public university.
“In this case, UCF actively requested that the speaker allow cameras,” Heston said. “It took about 10 minutes to make this happen and we received no complaints about the brief delay.” A review of the time codes on KnightNews.com footage, however, shows the delay was at least double that, and likely longer. After KnightNews.com shot video of the UCF videographer explaining to police it was OK for him to go inside, because Heston told him to, KnightNews.com shot the video below showing Heston telling independent media they can’t go in.
Following pressure created by a group of media waiting on scene for access, including KnightNews.com, WOFL Fox 35 and the Central Florida Future newspaper, UCF administrators eventually allowed all media to videotape the event, but only after Heston said UCF was able to persuade the speaker to give permission.
The access didn’t come without conditions. UCF forced the independent media to set up video cameras in the back of the room, while allowing the state-run media camera sent by UCF’s public relations department to enjoy closer access. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Over the past several months, UCF has repeatedly granted Student Government controlled portions of its state-run media better access than independent media to student-fee funded events. During Homecoming festivities, student media video cameras were even shut out altogether while state-run media kept on rolling.
Regarding Friday’s event, it’s not clear why UCF had dispatched its own camera crew to the speech if it already knew in advance that the speaker didn’t want cameras there.
CAMERAS CAUSED PROBLEMS FOR UCF BEFORE
The Muslim Student Association invited the speaker on campus as part of its Muslim Awareness Month, aimed at teaching students about Islam and erasing misconceptions. The last time the Muslim Student Association invited a controversial speaker, UCF police on hand were told to physically remove someone who was asking tough questions of the speaker, video evidence shows.
Watch a Video from the Group Upset Public Money Helped Host Imam httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqUhf7Q_0Sc
*This video was at November’s event, not Friday’s.
After three police officers physically dragged a man with opposing views from the room in the previous event, members of the Muslim leadership putting it on appeared shocked and expressed their disappointment that someone with an opposing view would be removed — because it defeated the point of the open forum.
That same individual who was removed by police in November showed up again Friday. This time, he asked a couple questions without any incidents.
MSA Responds: Exclusive Interview With President
In fact, during Friday night’s event, there was no physical violence or reports of disruption, other than a group of people standing up to say the pledge of allegiance to interrupt the speaker at one point.
UCF spokesman Grant Heston confirmed to KnightNews.com that about $1,250 in student fees were paid to the imam to cover his speaking fee honorarium and travel costs. Student Government decides how those fees are spent.