Liberty jolted when loudmouth Tasered

By RON SACHS, Special to the Times
Published September 22, 2007

One of the most widely viewed videos on the Web this week is of an obnoxious student who rudely asked questions at a forum with Sen. John Kerry at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

After interrupting the proceedings to ask his questions, UF telecommunications senior Andrew Meyer had his microphone cut off. He was forcefully escorted from the forum and shocked with a Taser. As the volts coursed through his body, Meyer's painful screams reverberated through an auditorium hushed in stunned silence.

If you watch the video, you'll see that Meyer's questions to Kerry - of allegations of voter fraud in Ohio, of impeaching President Bush, and of the senator's membership in the secretive Skull and Bones society - were rude. His attitude was arrogant, obnoxious and abrasive. But the last time I checked, that's not a felony in the United States.

What does seem criminal is the collective indifference of the detached members of the audience, including Kerry, the man who could have been president.

Meyer is a former columnist for the Independent Florida Alligator, the student-run newspaper where I served as editor during the 1970s. I was arrested for publishing information that made our leaders uncomfortable, and I too was charged with a felony. I published a list of abortion counseling services, which violated an old statute. My case led to the overturning of a Florida law as unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.

Meyer's conduct was shrill and undoubtedly annoying. But to punish political protest with physical pain - this is the path to tyranny. As a UF graduate and as a Democrat, I expected an institution such as the University as Florida - and a man such as Kerry - to do more to keep us off that path.

In the video, you can hear Kerry say he wants to answer Meyer's question, and he appeals for the audience to remain calm. But he does not ask the arresting officers to refrain from arresting, hurting or Tasering this college student.

This was a fine opportunity for Kerry to assert his leadership. But in this confused, chaotic situation, he was indecisive, and his voice did not rise above the background noise. Quite frankly, the man who might have been president of our country did not shine in this minicrisis.

In an interview last week, Gen. Colin Powell said Americans face a real threat from terrorism. Terrorists can destroy buildings; they can kill people. And yet, they cannot overthrow our political system or seize our constitutional freedoms. Only we Americans have the power to do that. Only we can give away our liberty.

When a student is silenced, led away and punished with physical pain for voicing unpopular opinions or even for being a rude lout, then our freedom is diminished. When a citizen is charged with a crime for voicing political views in the public square, our liberty ebbs away.

The framers of our Constitution were familiar with Voltaire's pledge: "Though I may disagree with what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it." In an auditorium of 700, with a U.S. senator present and cameras rolling, it seems such zeal for liberty was in short supply.

People who attended the event may have a different view than the millions who witnessed it on video. UF has promised an independent review. Meyer has been charged with disrupting a public event and resisting arrest.

It's good that a review is under way, but it is clear that the police were overzealous at best, and trampled all over this young man's rights at worst.

While Meyer may face criminal penalties in a court of law, in the court of public opinion it is the audience, the campus police and Kerry who have no defense.

Ron Sachs, president of Ron Sachs Communications in Tallahassee, is a former journalist who served as editor of the Florida Alligator.