For eight years, Room 229 inside Library West at the University of Florida has been named after Karl Marx.
That changed on March 10, when the university took down the plaque at the room’s entrance recognizing the author of The Communist Manifesto. School officials tied the decision to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying Marx “invokes strong and painful memories of Soviet domination and oppression.”
The action followed coverage in conservative media that took aim at the room’s name, including a March 8 Breitbart headline that read “Campus Commies.”
Since then, the room has become another flashpoint on a campus that has weathered months of controversy over alleged violations of academic freedom and charges that school leaders are too easily cowed by the state’s political leaders.
Last weekend, a dozen students staged a 13-hour sit-in outside the study room. A “Free Karl Marx” petition is being circulated, and flyers with Marx’s face are appearing on campus.
The petition is the work of the University of Florida Young Democratic Socialists, who have countered the removal by posting replicas of the plaque in the library.
“As a university that prides itself on quality education, the justification for this removal on the basis of the ongoing tragic conflict in Ukraine lacks any historical basis,” the group says in its petition, which had 263 signatures as of Friday morning. “Karl Marx was a German philosopher who died in 1883. The current Russian imperialist state is run by capitalist oligarchs who hold no affinity to the Marxist slogan: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.'”
The student group pointed to an article published three days before the sign was removed in the online publication Campus Reform, which bills itself as “a conservative watchdog to the nation’s higher education system.” Among other points, the article asserted that Marxism has “become an internalized notion among American college professors.”
A day later, Breitbart published its article, which included a passage saying UF “props up Marx’s name” while “schools across the country are tearing down American figures.”
In removing the Marx plaque, the university suggested people had complained but primarily cited world events.
“To many people around the world, the Russian invasion of Ukraine invokes strong and painful memories of Soviet domination and oppression, which had an indisputable link to Marxist ideology,” university spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez said in a statement. “For that reason, some people were troubled by the idea of having a room on the University of Florida campus with Marx’s name on it, and so the decision was made to remove the name.”
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The study room, which had been named for Marx since 2014, is one of 15 rooms named after thinkers and writers in Library West, which sits near the center of campus and houses collections in the humanities and social sciences.
The petition said the removal is “insulting to UF students who have been fighting for years to change the name of buildings glorifying racists and homophobes only to receive no response from administration.”
They pointed to Julius Wayne Reitz, the namesake of Reitz Union on campus, who, they wrote, denied admission to Black students and allowed “witch hunts” for LGBTQ community members through the Johns Committee in the 1950s. They pointed out eight other names of segregationists and confederates whose names are highlighted at various campus locations.
“The University of Florida has a long history of censorship from the McCarthy-era witch hunts of President Reitz to its most recent attempts to prevent professors from testifying,” they wrote, referring to the academic freedom controversy last fall. “These acts of censorship consistently target left-wing ideas at the behest of a right-wing state government.”
Aron Ali-McClory, vice president of the student organization and a freshman majoring in political science, noted that the state has made a point of ensuring all are comfortable expressing their viewpoints on college campuses. That notion is embodied in the “intellectual diversity” bill passed last year by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The removal “should concern people of all political backgrounds,” he said, “because it means the university is open to being influenced by institutions such as the state government to act and do things in accordance.”
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the year of Karl Marx’s death.)