McCollum blasts UF over free speech

December 12, 2007

No stranger to free speech issues of late, University of Florida officials are now under fire for criticizing students who recently hung fliers on campus reading “Radical Islam Wants You Dead.”

State Attorney General Bill McCollum claims UF officials stifled free speech by asking the students who posted the fliers to apologize for offending Muslims.

In a Dec. 3 letter, McCollum accused Patricia Telles-Irvin, UF’s vice president for student affairs, of creating a “chilling effect on the free speech rights of students.” McCollum’s office said as late as Tuesday that he was still unsatisfied with UF’s response to his concerns, and he has asked his staff to research any actions that he should take to ensure the UF students’ constitutional rights are protected, according to his letter.

The students who made the fliers were promoting a film about Islamic terrorism called “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.”

Under pressure from McCollum and others, Telles-Irvin issued a clarification last week meant to address the “misunderstanding” that UF sought to silence students. The e-mail, sent to some 50,000 UF students, went on to affirm that UF condemns terror—Islamic or otherwise.

“The university condemns terrorists acts and those who perpetrate them, regardless of who they are,” Telles-Irvin wrote. “And we clearly recognize there are people who use Islam to support violence.”

Telles-Irvin’s initial e-mail criticizing the fliers was attacked by pundits in the national media who argued that UF was silencing important discussion about terrorists’ threats to Americans.

“They missed 9/11 in Gainesville. You know that,” Bill O’Reilly said sarcastically on his Fox News broadcast. “That was the only city in the country that didn’t get the broadcast around the world. I don’t know why, but they are looking into the technical problem.”

Telles-Irvin’s second effort to appease critics still isn’t passing muster with some, including Florida’s attorney general.

“The second e-mail that went out last week has absolutely not satisfied the attorney general,” said Sandi Copes, McCollum’s press secretary. “In the first response sent to students, Dr. Telles-Irvin called for an apology. That particular call was the very act that potentially chilled free speech on the campus and until an official response is made rescinding that call for an apology or acknowledging that it was wrong, the attorney general will remain unsatisfied and gravely concerned.”

Janine Sikes, a spokeswoman for UF, said Tuesday that the university was still working to clarify McCollum’s continuing areas of concern.

“We’ve had conversations with the attorney general’s office and we are still talking,” she said.

The controversy over the fliers marks yet another free speech debate on UF’s campus, where such discussions have been plentiful in recent months. Free speech advocates latched onto the “Don’t Tase me, bro” incident in September, saying the Tasering of a UF student at a political forum was an affront to the free exchange of ideas universities are designed to promote. A recent appearance by former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales also sparked controversy when several students rushed the stage unimpeded by security.

While critics like McCollum remain, others say they’re now satisfied with UF’s actions.

Christian Waugh, president of the Law School Republicans who helped sponsor the film about Islamic terrorism, said Telles-Irvin’s follow-up e-mail was sufficient.

“I think right now we’ve hit a pleasant, cozy equilibrium,” he said. “They’ve thrown bones to both sides.”

Officials with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group devoted to campus speech issues, issued a statement Monday calling UF’s latest assurances that free expression will be defended “a victory for free speech.”

“It was absolutely necessary that they reaffirm that (putting up these fliers) was protected speech, and it unquestionably is,” Greg Lukianoff, the group’s president, told The Sun.

When Telles-Irvin initially asked the students to apologize late last month, she conveyed the concerns of Muslim students on campus who said they felt threatened by the “radical Islam wants you dead” signs. That concern was expressed in part by members of a group called Islam on Campus.

Yasir Ali, president of Islam on Campus, said his group was actually more concerned about a mass e-mail used to promote the event than the fliers themselves. The e-mail claimed that fliers for the event were torn down, proving that “certain student organization leaders and supporters identify with the small wing of RADICAL ISLAM. It proves the threat is present in Gainesville, Florida.”

Since Islam on Campus is UF’s only student organization wholly devoted to Muslim issues, Ali said the e-mail implied the group’s leadership subscribed to the very radical ideas that event organizers were portraying as a threat to the lives of UF students. As such, the e-mail made Muslim students on campus potential targets of violent retaliation, Ali said.

“(The e-mail) was saying Islam on Campus wants you dead, and therefore it became a safety concern with repercussions towards Muslim students,” Ali said.

Since Telles-Irvin’s initial e-mail was sent, she says she’s had a further opportunity to discuss the issues with students on both sides.

“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,” Telles-Irvin said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “As we move forward, there will be additional discussion.”

In a recent letter on the subject of the Islam fliers, UF President Bernie Machen said the university’s response was intended to promote tolerance in a world that’s been short on it lately. Machen cited the placing of a hangman’s noose on a Columbia University faculty member’s door recently as one of several troubling examples of hatred on college campuses.

“This is a very fine line—which we walk every day—between guaranteeing free speech and ensuring that those who engage in it feel secure in their ability to speak their minds,” Machen wrote to state Rep. Adam Hasner, the Republican majority leader who has been critical of UF’s response.

Hasner, R-Delray Beach, sent a letter to Machen last week asking that Telles-Irvin give a public apology and be reprimanded for her actions.

Like McCollum, Hasner says he’s still not satisfied with UF’s response.

“I believe that their statement was inadequate in addressing what the fundamental concern was, and the fundamental concern is still that the events that have taken place are troubling in the sense that the University of Florida appears not to be taking the issue of free speech very seriously,” he said. “And (this incident) is one that is very troubling in light of all the recent incidents at the University of Florida, and this is yet another failure to recognize the seriousness of the problem.”

Timeline of the controversy

A free speech controversy has been brewing for weeks at the University of Florida:

  • Nov. 13: The documentary “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West” is shown at UF. Sponsored by various student groups, the film is promoted with fliers that read “Radical Islam Wants You Dead.”
  • Nov. 26: Patricia Telles-Irvin, the University of Florida’s vice president for student affairs, sends an e-mail across campus suggesting the organizers of the event apologize for “language that reinforced a negative stereotype.”
  • Nov. 27: Steven Willis, faculty adviser for the Law School Republicans who helped sponsor the film screening, sends a letter to Telles-Irvin accusing her of stifling free speech. A similar complaint follows from state Rep. Adam Hasner, the majority leader of the Republican Party from Delray Beach.
  • Nov. 28: UF President Bernie Machen sends a letter to Hasner, defending UF’s response to the fliers.
  • Dec. 3: Attorney General Bill McCollum sends a letter to Machen, saying UF’s actions may have violated the law and have at the least “chilled free speech on the UF campus.”
  • Dec. 5: Unsatisfied with Machen’s explanation, Hasner sends a letter to UF’s president recommending Telles-Irvin make a public apology to students who were “attacked” for promoting the film.
  • Thursday: In a follow-up e-mail sent to students, Telles-Irvin seeks to “clarify” UF’s position, assuring that there was no intent to obstruct free speech.
  • Tuesday: The leader of a student group that sponsored the film says he’s satisfied with the university’s response, but McCollum and Hasner call the response insufficient.
Download file "McCollum blasts UF over free speech"

Schools: University of Florida Cases: University of Florida: Reaffirmation of Right to Show Documentary