UF clash pits freedom, faith

The attorney general threatens action against school officials who sided with Muslim students.

Published December 13, 2007

It started as a documentary screening at the University of Florida, the kind of discussion-generating event that happens every day on college campuses.

But the students promoting Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West put up dozens of posters declaring, "Radical Islam Wants You Dead."

And before long, what might have been just another night at the movies turned into a debate about free speech, terrorism, the Muslim faith and censorship.

So loud is the furor now, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum is warning of possible legal action against university administrators who - in a widely circulated letter to students - sided with a Muslim student organization whose members saw the posters as an attack on their faith.

A state lawmaker, meanwhile, is demanding UF administrators apologize for their handling of the matter.

McCollum sent a sharp-tongued letter to UF president Bernie Machen last week, warning him that student affairs vice president Patricia Telles-Irvin might have violated students' free speech rights with her Nov. 26 letter condemning the film's posters.

"As the attorney general of Florida, it is my duty to protect the constitutional rights of all Floridians, including civil rights and free speech rights," McCollum wrote. "Consequently, I have asked attorneys in my office to review this matter and advise me what if any action this office should pursue.

"By not only criticizing the ad, but also calling on the groups that posted the ad to apologize, Dr. Telles-Irvin, intentionally or not, has chilled free speech on the UF campus."

Telles-Irvin isn't commenting beyond the statement she issued this week: "My goal is and always has been to encourage dialogue among our student body, which is in fact occurring and a greater understanding has been reached."

'Suicide warrior!'

Supporters say Obsession is a raw look at radical Islam and the violence its leaders advocate.

Critics say it is unfairly divisive, lacking a balanced portrayal of the Muslim faith as a whole. It leaves the impression, they say, that all people of Islamic faith are dangerous and hateful.

Produced by a Canadian filmmaker, Rabbi Raphael Shore, the 2006 documentary uses footage from Arab TV to show radical Muslim leaders urging violence against the West.

Obsessionincludes footage of elementary school children reciting mantras like, "When I wander into the entrance of Jerusalem, I'll turn into a suicide warrior!"

Walid Shoebat, identified in the film as a former Palestine Liberation Organization terrorist, compares radical Islamists to Nazi Germans.

But the documentary opens with a message from filmmakers, stressing they do not associate the violent sect of Islam with the religion as a whole.

"Most Muslims do not support terror. This is not a film about them."

When the documentary was shown at the University of California at Los Angeles earlier this year, hundreds showed up - including many protesters.

Administrators at Pace University in New York pressured the Jewish student group Hillel to cancel a showing last fall because they feared it might prompt hate crimes against Muslim students.

Generating 'buzz'

UF's screening was organized by the Law School Republicans, College Republicans, Gators for Israel, Jewish Student Union, and Jewish Law Students Association.

Third-year law student Christian Waugh says he and other organizers were trying to spark a healthy discussion with the film. The posters, Waugh said, were a way of generating "buzz" about the Nov. 13 event.

"We didn't intend anything nefarious," said Waugh, 25, president of Law School Republicans.

Not everyone agreed. Before the screening, the posters were torn down. Leaders of the UF student group Islam on Campus said it wasn't them.

On Nov. 9, Islam on Campus president Yaser Ali wrote to Machen. His group of several hundred students is the only Muslim organization at UF.

Ali, 21, told Machen that he objected not to the film showing itself, but to an e-mail sent by event organizers in which they accused Ali's group of tearing down the posters and of identifying with radical Islam.

That e-mail, from Law School Republicans member Matthew Klein to several campus groups, stated: "It is unfortunate that certain student organization leaders and supporters identify with the small wing of RADICAL ISLAM. It proves the threat is present even in Gainesville."

"We had no desire to quell the free speech on campus," Ali, a political science student, said Wednesday. "But that e-mail gave us safety concerns."

The film screening came and went without much incident, and it wasn't until Nov. 26 that Telles-Irvin sent a letter to the student body.

She said the ads promoting the film offended Muslim students on campus and that the students responsible for the posters should apologize.

Her letter touched off a flurry of blog chatter, radio show debates and reprimands from elected officials, culminating with McCollum's recent letter.

State Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, called Machen shortly after Telles-Irvin's letter went out, expressing his concern that she reacted unfairly and inappropriately.

Machen responded in a letter Nov. 28, defending his vice president.

He told Hasner the message from Telles-Irvin was "intended to promote tolerance and diversity," and to ensure "civility."

Hasner later demanded that Telles-Irvin be publicly reprimanded and that she apologize to student film organizers.

He also wants UF to come up with a policy that expresses its "commitment to free speech."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.