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New College of Florida students face punishment for commencement actions

Three men in graduation attire sit on chairs on a stage. The American flag is in the background.
New College of Florida
Joe Ricketts, center, is the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade and launched an online degree program at New College earlier this year.

The speaker was heckled and there were "Free Palestine" chants during his speech. Six students who took part were ID'd, and president Richard Corcoran said they must write an apology or take a civil discourse class.

New College of Florida commencement speaker Joe Ricketts was not met with the warmest welcome.

As he was called to speak at the May 17 ceremony, a mixture of applause and boos flooded the Historic Ringling Mansion. Throughout his speech, laughter could be heard from the crowd and, at one point, a “Free Palestine” chant broke out.

Now, the students who took part could be punished.

In an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal, New College President Richard Corcoran said the school posted etiquette expectations before graduation. They included “demonstrating respect for fellow graduates, guests, and speakers.”

He added that the school deployed "law enforcement and surveillance to ensure that disruptions wouldn’t overshadow the event’s significance."

In an email to WUSF, New College spokesman Nathan March said five of the graduates were caught on camera and identified. A sixth was identified and cited on Wednesday.

Corcoran said unless those students write an apology letter or take a mandatory civil discourse class, they could have their degrees withheld or face suspension or expulsion.

"Going after their academic credentials they've earned, I think there's nothing that one would do other than say cheating or plagiarism, those are things that would make sense to question their degree,” said Brian Cody, a former New College student body president and board member of the Novo Collegian Alliance, which supports New College students.

“But anything else? I just can't understand why the school would do that. That's unprecedented."

Ricketts is the billionaire founder of TD Ameritrade. He launched an online degree program at New College in January.

In 2019, emails from Ricketts were leaked that contained racist and Islamophobic views.

Cody said, for the second straight year, students were not happy with President Richard Corcoran's choice of a commencement speaker.

"Last year, the President of the college brought in Scott Atlas, who was sort of Trump's COVID advisor,” Cody said, “It felt like a political choice, not one that was about the graduate, and so this felt like a continuation (of that.)"

New College posted etiquette expectations before graduation. They included “demonstrating respect for fellow graduates, guests, and speakers.”

“We support and protect the right of free speech while resolutely insisting upon civil discourse,” said a New College online statement posted a week after the ceremony. “Disruptive activities by a few individuals at a ceremonial event attended by hundreds is not representative of either of these principles.”

But Cody there was not a disruption, at least compared to what has been seen at other commencements around the country.

“I think there were reactions,” he said, “and the same way people might clap, people would boo. And so there was a mix of that.”

You can read a transcript of Ricketts’ speech by clicking here.

Aileyahu Shanes is a WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for the summer of 2024.