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UF flunks basic test on freedom of speech
A Times Editorial
Published December 14, 2007
Top administrators at the University of Florida might want to sit in on a class in constitutional law. It seems they need a refresher on the First Amendment.
First there was the famous "Don't Tase me, bro" incident, where UF student Andrew Meyer was shot with a Taser gun by campus police after he asked the speaker, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, a rambling, aggressive question, and then resisted police efforts to escort him out of the building.
Now we have the case of students being told by student affairs vice president Patricia Telles-Irvin to apologize for promoting a documentary in a way that offended Muslims on campus.
In advertising for a showing of the documentary Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, students associated with groups ranging from the Law School Republicans to Gators for Israel, put up posters around campus declaring, "Radical Islam Wants You Dead." A good number of these posters were torn down before the screening, something the university should be investigating. But rather than look into this vandalism, Telles-Irvin took off after the messengers.
In an e-mail to all university students, Telles-Irvin expressed dismay at the students who distributed the posters, saying that their inflammatory language "reinforced a negative stereotype." She said the students who put up the posters "owe the campus, and particularly campus members of the Islamic faith, an apology and clarification."
No they don't.
Free speech is not something you pay lip service to and then retract in the next breath: As in, "we support freedom of speech, but..." Life under the First Amendment can occasionally be distasteful. Crass insults, hate speech, irresponsible claims and offensive language all have to be tolerated. That is the inevitable consequence of having the freedom to say what we want.
As Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote in one of the Supreme Court's seminal free speech cases: "one man's vulgarity is another man's lyric." The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, not freedom from speech that offends.
The University of Florida was free to express its displeasure with the posters, but the school crossed the line by telling students to apologize for it.
Now, Attorney General Bill McCollum has gotten involved. In a letter to UF president Bernie Machen, McCollum raised the possibility of his office taking action on behalf of the students if it finds that their free speech rights were violated. McCollum suggests the university "take some appropriate remedial action," before other steps become necessary.
McCollum was right to get involved and we hope that he remains vigilant in other circumstances when students or citizens have their constitutional rights violated by the state.
Machen has so far defended the actions of his student affairs chief. But he should reconsider and heed McCollum's advice. Machen has a responsibility to stand up for the First Amendment rights of his students, not to balm the hurt feelings of those who feel insulted. Just ask the nearest expert on constitutional law.