Environmental group kicked off UF campus


Published: Monday, October 28, 2013 at 11:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 28, 2013 at 11:06 p.m.

An environmental group that was scheduled to make a presentation on Monday at the University of Florida on genetically engineered trees was kicked off campus over the weekend and its members threatened with arrest and banned for three years.

Organizers with the Global Justice Ecology Project had come to campus Saturday to check out the room they had booked at the McKnight Brain Institute, said Rachel Kijewski, an organizer with Everglades Earth First of Lake Worth and one of several scheduled presenters.

“We just tried to see the room, and within five minutes we had police officers approaching us, saying we were trying to get into a secure facility,” Kijewski said. “We were issued trespass warnings, and all of us presenters were issued three-year bans.”

Five members of the group were issued citations and banned from all of UF campus and the UF Health Center. The one UF student in their group was given a trespass citation from the Health Center only.

All six have the right to appeal their trespass citations before University Police Department Chief Linda Stump.

UF student William Brandon Jones, 28, reserved the 80-seat conference room L110-A on Sept. 30, a month before Monday night’s planned event. The reservation was confirmed via email by Sabrina Sanchez, executive secretary to MBI Director Dr. Tetsuo Ashizawa.

Four days before the event was to occur, Jones received an email from Kelly Sharp, administration and finance director of the MBI, that the meeting space requested was unavailable. “We host a large number of events at the MBI and must give priority to brain and neuroscience related functions,” Sharp wrote.

Jones wrote back that he had put a lot of work into advertising the event, that he had emailed everyone in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation, had personally invited different student groups, and announced the event in each of his classes.

Sharp replied the Friday before the event with apologies that the AV equipment in the room had stopped working and it was blocked out for repairs. “We do not have alternative space to offer,” Sharp wrote at 4:06 p.m. Friday, offering to post signs about the cancelation.

Jones replied at 8:55 p.m. Friday that the MBI had four conference rooms available and wondered if they were all experiencing technical problems. He also said he checked the MBI calendar and didn’t see a conflict. There was no response to his last email.

Around 4:36 p.m. Saturday, UF police officers were dispatched to the MBI to respond to reports that six people were trying to get in without a key. The officers found Jones and five other people, all in their 20s, on the east side of the brain institute. When questioned, Jones said he had reserved a classroom earlier but couldn’t gain access with his Gator-1 card.

Kijewski, 28, told police they were there to check out their room in advance. A witness told police that Kijewski had tried to talk an employee into letting her in by saying she’d left a backpack in the building. A witness told police that another member of the group tried catching the back of a door as an employee opened it and walked through.

Police found out that the permission to use the room had been rescinded and that the event had been canceled.

William Bennington, 25, a presenter with Global Justice, from Burlington, Vt., told a reporter over the phone that they were all shocked by the last-minute cancellation and had come to the building to see if anyone there could grant them access to a room.

“We just wanted to see if it was possible to walk in and find someone to talk to about helping us out or helping us find a different room,” Bennington said. “We were just looking for options.”

The UF presentation was part of a multi-week speaking tour called “The Growing Threat: Genetically Engineered Trees and the Future of Forests.” The tour is aimed at highlighting the social and environmental concerns about genetically modified trees, including contamination of non-modified trees, increase of fire risks and deforestation.

Instead of giving a live presentation, they gave a Skype presentation to UF Professor Bron Taylor’s environmental ethics class.

“I heard the event was canceled and thought that was a shame,” Taylor said by phone. “These folks are posing important questions that are hotly debated in environmental ethics today. Since the police department said they can’t be on campus, I arranged for them to come in via video chat.”

Kijewski said she believes the whole trespass incident and cancellation of the conference room is related to UF’s research in genetic engineering. The School of Forest Resources and Conservation has a three-year, $6.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop loblolly pines for liquid biofuel production.

“It’s telling that this is politicized,” she said. “It’s showing us that the university is very nervous about any dissent regarding their research.”

University officials did not comment on whether the cancellation was politically motivated. UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes said the Brain Institute has the right to cancel or rescind permission for a room’s use at any time, without giving a reason.

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