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Speakers such as the doctor who assisted at least 130 suicides pose security dilemmas.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published January 13, 2008
GAINESVILLE - Sen. John Kerry gives a speech at the University of Florida, and campus police Taser a disruptive student in the audience.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales visits months later, and a young man dressed like a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner hops on stage and stands within inches of him.
So what's in store when controversial assisted-suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian comes to Gainesville Tuesday?
UF officials aren't releasing many details on their security plans, but the aim is to provide security for the speaker and attendees without squelching free speech and the kind of rigorous public discourse universities are known for.
UF officials are bracing for a large, potentially boisterous crowd, but they say police will be brought in as a last resort.
"The staffing plan for this program is more like what we would do for a basketball game or a concert," said Beth Waltrip, UF's adviser to ACCENT, the student-run speakers bureau that arranged for Kevorkian's visit.
"With the Gonzales program, we anticipated protests but didn't necessarily expect protesters to take the stage. So that led us to think about future lectures differently in terms of security."
Gonzales spoke at UF's performing arts center Nov. 19. As he began his speech, a young man dressed like a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner hopped on stage and stood close to Gonzales. It was 30 seconds or so before two UF police officers took him away.
Audience members weren't searched for weapons before entering the performing arts center. And the venue ushers who were supposed to keep attendees off the stage didn't at first, said UF spokesman Steve Orlando.
It was a marked contrast to Sen. Kerry's now-infamous visit just weeks earlier. Student Andrew Meyer asked Kerry questions, then grew belligerent and resisted officers' attempts to escort him outside. Cameras rolled as Meyer screamed "Don't Tase me, bro!" from the back of the lecture hall, where officers wrestled him to the ground.
If the Sept. 17 Taser incident was an example of campus police overreacting, as critics contend, the officers' handling of the Nov. 19 Gonzales visit could be called the opposite - police officers, event organizers and venue staff members practicing extreme caution in the midst of scrutiny over their security tactics.
"I think so," Waltrip said.
Police used last
UF spokesman Orlando said administrators aren't releasing details on the number of officers who will police Kevorkian's speech, to be held before a maximum crowd of roughly 5,000 at the O'Connell Center basketball arena.
But given the intense emotions surrounding Kevorkian - and given the national furor a few years ago over Pinellas Park hospice resident Terri Schiavo's right-to-die case - UF officials are bracing for a large, potentially boisterous crowd.
Hundreds of e-mails have poured into UF president Bernie Machen's mailbox in recent days.
Those attending the free event cannot bring in bags or signs. Armed campus police officers will respond only in the case of potential violence or a major disturbance.
"If it's somebody just being argumentative, but not being physically violent or obstructing the program, then the O'Connell Center staff would step in," Waltrip said. If things escalate, university staff will step in, and last police, she said.
The goal, as Machen made clear following the Taser incident, is to find a balance between safety and free speech. Kevorkian's visit, coming as the UF police department continues to re-evaluate its event security policies, could pose the greatest challenge thus far.
"This is a much broader issue with more controversy," Orlando said. "We've heard from people who say they'll be there to make their opinions known, and we'll work to make sure no one is squelched."
He and other UF officials have been fielding calls and e-mails from supporters and protesters around the country ever since they announced they would pay Kevorkian $50,000 in student fees to speak about assisted suicide. He was originally scheduled to make UF his first public lecture stop, with an October appearance, but UF officials postponed it because of the national controversy following the Taser incident.
Schiavo case in mind
Dubbed "Dr. Death," the 79-year-old former pathologist was released this summer from the Michigan federal prison where he served eight years for the second-degree murder of a terminally ill man. He assisted in at least 130 suicides before his 1999 conviction, which came after he sent to 60 Minutes a videotape of himself with a man dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. Kevorkian no longer practices medicine.
"ACCENT has been bringing controversial people to UF for years," said Waltrip. "Part of what has changed is the level of emotion, and the lengths people will go to in trying to disrupt a program."
Some of those expected Tuesday are assisted-suicide supporters.
A student group, Pro-Life Alliance, plans to protest.
They might be joined by some of the same people who stood vigil outside Terri Schiavo's assisted living facility in Pinellas Park for weeks in early 2005, Orlando said.
Mark LaBelle, chairman of activism for the Pro-Life Alliance, said his group doesn't intend to disrupt the speech.
"As for Andrew Meyer, he just went too far," LaBelle said. "Our purpose for protesting is not to make anyone feel threatened or to cause a scene, as Meyer did."
Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403.
[Last modified January 12, 2008, 23:48:09]