Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Criticism, Censorship, and the University of Florida

Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum has written a letter to the University of Florida condemning Patricia Telles-Irvin, the University of Florida Vice President for Student Affairs, for sending a note to all students critical of the conservative students who showed the anti-Muslim movie “Obsession.”

It’s very disturbing whenever a government official threatens to investigate a university and accuses an administrator of breaking the law merely for expressing a viewpoint critical of students. Indeed, McCollum is at least guilty of doing exactly what he accuses Telles-Irvin of doing: using a public letter to denounce someone for expressing an idea. The key difference is that Telles-Irvin was merely expressing her criticism of the students who showed the movie, and never threatened any disciplinary action; McCollum, by contrast, is abusing his authority by threatening legal retaliation against the university.

I’m not particularly fond of the Telles-Irvin letter (available here). I think it’s full of administrative-speak, with all the usual nonsense about how rights must be balanced with responsibilities. I disagree that it's bad to show movies that offend people. But we must defend the right of anyone on a campus to criticize anyone else.

Steven Willis, the faculty advisor to the college Republicans at UF, wrote a ridiculous letter claiming that the administration has "limitations on your right to speak" and must offer "due process" to express an opinion. Willis claims that urging someone to apologize is a form of "disciplinary action," which is absurd. Willis even claims that "due process" was violated when "Your office supported a meeting last week - which included the loaded words 'Racism' and 'Discrimination' in the title. You provided me with no notice. You provided the students with inadequate notice." Exactly how does holding a meeting without Willis about the controversy a violation of anyone's due process rights? Willis further distorts the law by claiming that university officials violated the law protecting people from anyone who "interferes by threats, intimidation, or coercion" with their rights. Since there are no threats or coercion by the University of Florida here, Willis claims that mere criticism is a form of "intimidation." (Of course, if that were true, then Muslim students could claim to have their rights "intimidated" by the showing of the film.)

This is how a system of free speech works: someone shows a movie, the administration condemns it as offensive, people denounce the administration, and everybody's happy so long as there is no use of the legal system to try to suppress this free expression.

The attorney general of Florida is wrong to use the power of the state to impose his hatred of Telles-Irvin’s viewpoint. And that’s what should be condemned. If McCollum wanted to criticize Telles-Irvin’s ideas, he was free to do so. But when he claims that her speech is a violation of free speech, and threatens an investigation, he’s trying to impose his opinions on a university.


Anonymous said...

State officials owe due process when disciplining students. This would include notice of meetings to discuss the issue if they are expected at the meeting. Notice should go to the students and to their advisor/attorney.

Titling a meeting to discuss a religious complaint with the word "racism" is inappropriate. Because the University chose the label, it impairs its supposed impartiality.

Shaming - including labels such as disruptive and intolerant - plus pressure for an apology are traditional forms of discipline. They are not the harshest form; nevertheless, they are discipline under the University Code of Conduct. As such, they can only be imposed with due process of law. They cannot be imposed against a group merely because the group exercised free speech rights.

Your analysis of the Constitution is seriously flawed.

Anonymous said...

The authoritarian regime in charge of the University of Florida is in the news again. (See )

Just earlier this week the President of Daytona Beach Community College had to be reminded to "spare DBCC the embarrassment of fighting the Constitution, by which it is legally and morally bound." (See link to FIRE letter in )

The same sage advice now applies to UF.

Robert Talbert said...

But John, you are forgetting that there is a vast difference between the students who put up that poster and the administrator who responded to them. Telles-Irvin is the chief academic officer for a public university, which makes her a high-ranking state official as well as a final or nearly-final authority on the academic life of the college. Unless she explicitly decouples her opinions from her position -- which she did not, and in fact the memo she sent clearly attaches her position as VPAA to the content of the letter -- the recipients of those opinions have no choice but to believe that she is speaking for the university, and by extension, for the state of Florida.

And in fact her precise words from her letter were "I believe the groups that posted them owe the campus, and particularly campus members of the Islamic faith, an apology and a clarification." This may not explicitly call for disciplinary action, but if you're one of the students receiving this letter, what would you think? Wouldn't you interpret this as an order from the dean's office to issue an apology and a clarification -- in other words, a direct order to conform to a specific pattern of speech?

The AG's role in intervening, according to his letter, is to make sure that the constitutional rights of the students are not being infringed upon by officials of the state, i.e. the VPAA. Indeed, if those rights ARE being infringed, then state intervention is not only appropriate but necessary.

notionscapital said...

It is a sad day for legal education, law and justice in Florida when the state's chief law enforcement officer and a member of the UF law faculty fail to establish the facts before using their public positions to threaten, accuse, and bully.

Records indicate that Matt Klein, Student Government Chief Justice and a film sponsor, sent a campus-wide email blast charging the UF Muslim Students’ organization Islam on Campus (IOC) with an organized effort to remove film posters. Referring to IOC, the only campus Islamic group, he wrote: “THIS IS A DOCUMENTARY THE RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISTS DO NOT WANT YOU TO SEE. THEIR LEADERSHIP ON CAMPUS HAS ADMITTED TEARING DOWN POSTERS ADVERTISING THIS EVENT!!! It is unfortunate that certain student organization leaders and supporters identify with the small wing of RADICAL ISLAM. It proves the threat is present even in Gainesville, Florida.”

UF Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin asked Mr. Klein to apologize to IOC and the UF Muslim community for the substance and language of this campus-wide email, and asked the film’s UF sponsors to apologize for the inflammatory posters.

It appears the only "error" on the part of Dr. Telles-Irvin was her omission of Mr. Klein's name from her email, and I think the better of her for this.

If there has been a knee-jerk, doctrinaire response here, it is the unfounded assumption that this affair is a freedom of speech issue. If anyone in the UF administration questioned the film screening on campus, it is not reflected in the existing records.

If there has been a "chilling effect," it is the freeze-out of the facts of the case by publicly-funded bullies pursuing a partisan agenda, encouraged and abetted by the national media.

I am no lawyer, so perhaps I err, but I find no constitutional defense of the freedom to lie.

According to the press, Mr. Klein apologized to the UF community for his actions. What a pity he is the student, and the elders who are paid to teach the law and enforce it cannot learn from him.

Mike Licht

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