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Legislating Free Speech on Florida’s College Campuses? Not So Fast.

| February 27, 2017

free speech board

Restricted to the board, at Florida Atlantic University. (FAU)

By Joe Henderson

Of the many wonderful things the late University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt said and did in her life, perhaps none echoes with more relevance today than these simple words: Toughen up, buttercup.


Sally Jenkins, the terrific Washington Post columnist, reported that’s how Summitt dealt with an assistant coach who was upset almost to the point of tears over what must have been a relatively minor team problem.

It was good advice. People on either side of the political equation should listen, especially given the debate bubbling up about the First Amendment right of free speech.

As Mitch Perry of FloridaPolitics.com reported Thursday, the Florida House Subcommittee on Post-Secondary Education pondered on proposed legislation called the Campus Free Speech Act. Stanley Kurtz, a conservative academic, told lawmakers the measure would defend the right for people to speak their minds at the state’s universities.

It would require universities to create policy that reminds students that free speech is vital to the nation.

Well, OK so far.

It also would prohibit administrators from disinviting speakers, no matter how controversial, if people on campus want to hear from them.

The slope is getting a little slippery, but go on …

It would subject students or anyone else who interferes with the free-speech rights of others to official discipline.

Getting very slippery …

It would allow people who believe their free-speech rights were hindered by the university to recover court costs and attorney’s fees.

Getting a little out of control …

context florida politicsConservatives have complained for decades that college campuses are liberal “safe spaces” where political correctness is the understood rule and dissent is not tolerated. I’ll concede that there have been many cases where seemingly innocent remarks have exploded into firestorms.

Take the case of former Yale University lecturer Erika Christakis, who resigned under immense pressure after having the audacity to challenge an edict by the school administration that set guidelines for Halloween costumes. Students were prohibited from choosing a costume that could be considered racially or sexually insensitive.

Christakis’ high crime?

She wrote this: “What happens when one person’s offense is another person’s pride? Should a costume wearer’s intent or context matter? Can we always tell the difference between a mocking costume and one that satirizes ignorance? In what circumstances should we allow — or punish — youthful transgression?”

The backlash from students and faculty was furious, almost mob-like. That a grand bit of irony since the university’s demand for tolerance turned into intolerance for anyone who strayed an inch outside of the lines.

I know what Pat Summitt would have told the protestors.

Students everywhere should learn that lesson because – listen closely now – when they get into the real world, not everyone will agree with them. Not everything they hear and see will reaffirm their values. They will be told “no” when the answer they expect to hear is “yes.”

Their ears will be assaulted by cretins like Milo Yiannopoulos, the creepy former Breitbart wingnut whose recent speaking engagement at Cal-Berkeley was canceled but not before rioters protesting his appearance caused thousands of dollars in damage.

Protest: good.

Riot: bad.

Protesting is a form of free speech, too. Kurtz’s proposal would limit that by punishing people who try to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree. If that’s the case, what would have happened to Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who yelled “You lie” at President Obama during a 2009 speech about health care?

We don’t need another law to protect free speech. The First Amendment has that covered. It wouldn’t hurt for universities to remind students and faculty that dissent must be tolerated and conflicting opinions should be openly and civilly discussed.

If it strays over the line into personal attacks about a person’s lifestyle, religion or looks, punishment is appropriate.

Otherwise, heed Pat Summit’s advice.

Life is a contact sport.

Joe Henderson is a 45-year veteran newspaperman, including nearly 42 at The Tampa Tribune.

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9 Responses for “Legislating Free Speech on Florida’s College Campuses? Not So Fast.”

  1. Richard Smith says:

    Agreed! Peaceful protesting is a good way to voice your views and opinions. When they cross the line and cause damage, destruction, harm and death, they are now criminals and felons and should be treated as such.

  2. Sherry says:

    In addition FREEDOM of the PRESS is specifically outlined in our constitution. . . however, the current administration is doing everything they can to curb any stories they do not like. Why is it that our constitutional rights are trampled on by politicians who are hell bent on “remaking” our entire culture and society in “their” image? “Their Ideology” ! “Their Bias”!

    To preserve our sacred Democracy. . . we ALL need to realize that massive manipulation and propaganda is being thrown at us in every way, every day. We must actively “pay attention”, educate ourselves, exercise our critical thinking and DEFEND ALL our RIGHTS vigorously, for is we do not. . . they will be watered down and eventually completely dissolve. . . while we are distracted by the next text message about what our friend had for dinner last night.

    It’s our Democracy, but only as long as we actively protect it!

  3. jadobi says:

    If only people knew what the principle of Freedom of Speech does not cover…

  4. Knightwatch says:

    I am a fervent progressive, knee-jerk liberal Democrat. But I gotta come down on the side of “equal” free speech. That means I get to call the trumppet a vile, ignorant, pathological lying narcissist, and someone on the other side you know, a deplorable, gets to speak his/her mind about me. There are social norms that I hope we all would adhere to, no racial or ethnic insults, for example, but free speech does allow people the legal right to use such insults. However, society as a whole has the right to reject the offending speaker and his/her views, and to employ “social justice” – condemnation, boycott, protest – to express displeasure. That right should not be denied. Legislators need to stay out of it.

  5. Traveling Rep says:

    “We don’t need another law to protect free speech. The First Amendment has that covered. It wouldn’t hurt for universities to remind students and faculty that dissent must be tolerated and conflicting opinions should be openly and civilly discussed.

    If it strays over the line into personal attacks about a person’s lifestyle, religion or looks, punishment is appropriate.”

    What a flip-flop! I’m pretty sure the first amendment does not cover feelings getting hurt or punishment related to hurt feelings. It just simply says:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    Funny that the same crowd that condones protestors verbally assaulting police officers and Trump rally attendees, cry foul when someone such as Milo shows up on a college campus – with an anti-PC message. Oh, the hypocrisy…

  6. BOB says:

    It seems to be very upsetting to a lot of people that Clinton lost.

  7. Knightwatch says:

    jadobi… that’s what makes this so impossible. One man’s/woman’s free speech is another’s personal insult. We can’t legislate good taste or common sense. This is something our society needs to work out, without help from legislators with their own personal prejudices.

  8. Knightwatch says:

    Yeah, BOB, like 67 million upset people, plus probably 10s of thousands of disaffected trump voters.

  9. Richard Smith says:

    Bob, people here have every right to voice their opinions regardless of what side of the aisle they happen to be on or which presidents they like or dislike. You can’t please everyone in every presidential election. One side wins the other loses and generally the losing side will complain until the cow jumps over the moon or at least until the next presidential election only 3 1/2 + years from now. They will then have a chance to legally exercise their right to vote for whomever they choose. Trump didn’t WIN the presidency, Hillary gave it to Trump for the taking because she had no platform and no voter base. I guess she should have spent more time in the states of Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina where those went to Trump because the lack of voter turnout for Clintion. There were over 90+ million registered voters who did not vote many which would have voted for Clinton. Too bad people. You sat home and watched history in the making.

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