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Censorship strikes a sour note

College campuses, of all places, should set a standard for the practice of free expression. Barring a Cuban musical group is hardly the way to draw a distinction between American democracy and Castro's regime. The University of South Florida should be ashamed for kowtowing to Tampa's anti-Castro community.

Earlier this month, USF Provost Thomas Tighe canceled the funding to bring La Camerata Romeu to campus. A USF professor heard the classical music group during a visit to Cuba and worked to obtain the air fare and necessary travel permits. But earlier this month, Tighe blocked the use of $4,500 from the university's education and general fund to pay for air fare. The performance was canceled.

"The reason behind this decision was that sensitivities are such that he (Tighe) will not permit a visit by a Cuban national group using public money," a university spokesman told the Times.

Tighe later said he is new to Florida and may have misjudged the political ramifications of his decision. In any case, hiding behind "public money" is a feeble excuse. The university has withstood criticism of paid appearances before _ most recently, turning aside a heavy-handed attempt by Republican state Sen. John Grant to cancel a talk by Greg Louganis, the Olympic diver and gay activist. The university, to its credit, told Grant to take a leap. Why buckle now to anti-Castro Cubans?

If Tighe was worried about public money, why cancel the appearance outright? Certainly the university could have struck a deal whereby private sponsors repaid the money, thus sparing organizers the tiresome job of obtaining new travel permits.

Acting with sensitivity does not entitle USF to violate free speech. The university's decision may have been easier to explain had the appearance posed a serious security danger, or the risk of riotous speech. But classical musicians?

The university's censorship was the worst kind: self-imposed. Luckily, the sad chapter is not characteristic of USF's overall record. This episode should serve as a reminder to the university community that controversy and courage are inseparable from free speech.