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UF retracts a call for apology
Officials say their demand was inappropriate and they stand behind the First Amendment.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published December 14, 2007
[Special to the Times]
Muslim students were reportedly fearful for their safety after seeing these posters promoting a controversial documentary.
University of Florida leaders issued a mea culpa Thursday, hoping to avoid possible legal action from Florida's top lawmaker and end a monthlong controversy over the Muslim faith, terrorism and campus censorship.
UF officials said they will retract their recent demand for an apology from five student groups that promoted the screening of a controversial documentary by posting fliers and sending e-mails that made UF Muslim students fear for their safety.
"Upon reflection, the suggestion of an apology was not appropriate and is retracted," UF president Bernie Machen told students in an announcement first reported on tampabay.com, the Web site of the St. Petersburg Times.
Saying the First Amendment's protection of speech is "foundational to our institution," Machen said the UF journalism school's Brechner Center for Freedom of Information will develop a Web site that provides information about students' rights of expression on campus.
"The Middle East is the most sensitive, volatile and important issue of our time," Machen later told the Times. "It's important that a campus like ours have open dialogue about that. The point is a tolerance for free speech on both sides."
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a UF law school graduate, threatened legal action against UF officials earlier this month. He warned the college's student affairs vice president might have violated students' free speech rights with a Nov. 26 e-mail to the student body in which she denounced film organizers' promotion of Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West and demanded they apologize.
To garner what they called "buzz" for the Nov. 13 screening, students put up posters declaring "Radical Islam Wants You Dead." The posters were torn down, and one student organizer with the Law School Republicans sent an e-mail insinuating UF's student Muslim group Islam on Campus is a supporter of radical Islam.
That prompted Patricia Telles-Irvin to send the Nov. 26 letter declaring the film promotions offensive and divisive.
"I believe the groups that posted them owe the campus, and particularly campus members of the Islamic faith, an apology and a clarification," she wrote.
The letter drew rebukes from Delray Beach Republican Rep. Adam Hasner and from McCollum.
"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," McCollum wrote. "The headline on the ad for the movie reading 'Radical Islam Wants You Dead' ... is a true statement of the intent of these radical Islamic terrorists."
Hasner demanded Telles-Irvin apologize and be publicly admonished.
Thursday, McCollum said through a spokeswoman that he "appreciates the university's appropriate response in resolving the potential threat to free speech on the university campus."