Victory for Free Speech at the University of Florida

By December 10, 2007

After FIRE and the Attorney General of Florida intervened, the University of Florida (UF) has lifted its pressure on student groups to apologize for putting up posters advertising the film “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.”

Several student groups—including UF’s Law School Republicans, College Republicans, Jewish Student Union, and Jewish Law Students Association—had put up the posters to advertise a November 13, 2007, screening of the film. The posters used the headline, “RADICAL ISLAM WANTS YOU DEAD.”

On November 26, Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin e-mailed all students at Florida a letter entitled “Official Response to a recent advertisement for the movie ‘Obsession.’” In her letter, Telles-Irvin stated that “the groups that posted them [the posters] owe the campus, and particularly campus members of the Islamic faith, an apology and a clarification.” She also wrote that at “the University of Florida we have embraced a set of values, one of which is diversity.”

FIRE wrote to Telles-Irvin on November 29, 2007, reminding her that although the poster might have offended some on campus, it was unquestionably protected expression under the First Amendment. The administration’s message created a “chilling effect” whereby students could reasonably fear punishment for hosting or promoting similar events.

On December 3, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum wrote to James Bernard Machen, UF’s president, expressing similar concerns.

Here are some other links about the case. CNN’s Glenn Beck interviewed the president of the Law School Republicans, Christian Waugh, on December 3, and the transcript is here.

On December 6, Telles-Irvin again wrote all UF students, assuring them of their right “to freely express themselves on any issue” and making clear that there would be no disciplinary action against the students who promoted the film. She repeated these assurances in a letter to FIRE today. Telles-Irvin added, “The University of Florida embraces both the requirements and the values of the First Amendment even in circumstances where doing so is difficult.” Writing from 1,000 miles away, I cannot really say how much pressure Telles-Irvin felt she was under from those on campus who were urging UF to denounce the posters and those who posted them, but I do find it hard to believe that the circumstances were at all difficult in this case. After all, the message on the posters was the same as one of the messages in the film. And as McCollum pointed out, while some might disagree, many Americans would agree that Muslim extremists (unlike most Muslims) do want to see Americans die.

UF has now done the right thing by reaffirming its commitment to free expression and promising that it will allow its students to promote, view, and discuss “Obsession” openly and without fear of intervention by the university.

Schools: University of Florida