The strange case of ‘Obsession’ at the University of Florida

January 28, 2008

You know how colleges and universities write themselves off as bastions of free and controversial thought? Ha. Funny story. A couple of months ago, a number of student groups at the University of Florida-including the College Republicans, the UF Law School Republicans, the Jewish Student Union, Gators for Israel, and the Jewish Law Students Association-planned a showing of the documentary Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West. In an effort to promote the film, the groups posted flyers with the headline “Radical Islam Wants you Dead.” One familiar with the sensitive culture on contemporary college campuses probably knows where this is going.

There was outrage among some members of the student body and the university administrators intervened. In an e-mail to all university students, Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin tagged the advertisement for the documentary as part of a rash of “offensive behavior and actions taken against others, which has created greater divisiveness and misunderstandings among the various ethnic groups residing in our communities.” She said that the phrase “Radical Islam Wants You Dead” promoted a “negative stereotype” that “offended many Muslim students.”

Telles-Irvin also repeated a tired but common administrative talking point about the importance of “balancing freedom of speech with responsibility” (read: it’s irresponsible to say something that someone else might find offensive):

We cannot speak of rights without also addressing the responsibility associated with our actions or statements, including understanding the potential consequences. One of our roles as a learning institution is to teach our students to express themselves freely, and also in a fair and conscientious manner.

She demanded that the groups that posted the Obsession flyers apologize. Such an action was necessary to create “an inclusive and safe environment and collectively enhanc[e] our understanding and appreciation of the richness brought by such differences.” After some more shibboleths about students feeling “valued” and “safe” in an “open and accepting environment” that emphasizes “respect for all” yada, yada, yada, she stated that there was a “delicate balance between our rights and responsibilities.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote a brief letter to Telles-Irvin. FIRE quoted a pointed e-mail from Law School Republican adviser and Law Professor Steven J. Willis to Telles-Irvin sent shortly after Telles-Irvin’s e-mail to the student body.

Your arguments about “diversity” and “responsibility” and “divisiveness” are irrelevant to that fundamental issue: the actions are protected speech and you have no right – in your “Official” capacity – to censure them, either before or after the fact. Indeed, you have the obligation not to do so. You are the one behaving inappropriately and you are the one who should apologize.

FIRE summed up the case against Telles-Irvin thusly:

Let us be clear that while the content in question, a message about radical Islam, might offend members of the campus community, it is unquestionably protected expression under the First Amendment. The principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or “offensive.” The Supreme Court stated in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989) that “[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Similarly, the Court wrote in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973) that “the mere dissemination of ideas-no matter how offensive to good taste-on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.'”

FIRE demanded that all students at the University of Florida be unconditionally assured that they would not be punished for the expression of their constitutionally protected speech and that college policy reflect in word and practice the same.

Telles-Irvin responded that the University of Florida “embraces both the requirements and the values of the First Amendment even in circumstances where doing so is difficult.” And the documentary showing went forth as planned.

Schools:  University of Florida

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