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.