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UF President Ben Sasse, state Rep. Randy Fine spar over social media post

The two public figures trade insults after a Facebook post about child deaths in Gaza.
 
State Rep. Randy Fine, left, and University of Florida President Ben Sasse engaged in a testy exchange over a social media post on the Israel-Hamas war.
State Rep. Randy Fine, left, and University of Florida President Ben Sasse engaged in a testy exchange over a social media post on the Israel-Hamas war. [ Phelan M. Ebenhack, AP | Ivy Ceballo, Times ]
Published Nov. 21, 2023|Updated Nov. 21, 2023

A social media post critical of child deaths in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas war has ignited a testy public exchange between University of Florida President Ben Sasse and state Rep. Randy Fine.

Both officials have voiced strong support for Israel since the war began, but the two are trading jabs this week after Fine commented Friday on a Facebook post by Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, a former UF instructor. Simmons had shared a post that said the pace of child deaths last month in Gaza was greater than the monthly toll of Jewish children killed during the Holocaust.

The original post contained side-by-side images of Adolf Hitler and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After Jewish leaders alerted Fine to the post, he texted an administrator on the UF government relations team Friday morning. The Brevard County Republican then posted the image on X, formerly Twitter, describing Simmons as a UF professor spreading the anti-Israel message in classes. He called on the university to fire her.

This post on X by State Rep. Randy Fine regarding the Israel-Hamas war appeared Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, criticizing the University of Florida. The post drew a retort from UF President Ben Sasse. It was deleted on Tuesday, Nov. 21.
This post on X by State Rep. Randy Fine regarding the Israel-Hamas war appeared Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, criticizing the University of Florida. The post drew a retort from UF President Ben Sasse. It was deleted on Tuesday, Nov. 21. [ X ]

Sasse shot back on Monday with a memo to UF deans and Cabinet leaders titled “education amid endless online screaming.” While not mentioning Fine by name, he referred to the lawmaker’s “thirsty, attention-desperate post,” calling it exaggerated and “too-good-to-be-checked clickbait that he knows isn’t true.”

In an apparent reference to Simmons, Sasse wrote that “the individual in question” no longer worked for UF. He noted that Simmons was an instructor, not a professor, and that she shared the “antisemitic drivel” on social media, not on any UF platform.

Simmons, who is also a civil rights activist, retired from UF in 2019.

Fine responded in an interview, saying Sasse should spend “less time bloviating and more time working.”

Reached by phone, Simmons, 79, who still lives in Gainesville, said she was stunned to hear her post had been seen and shared by university and state leaders. She said she was a frequent poster on Facebook and that her daughter warned her of posting too much.

“I am not even aware of this person,” she said of Fine, adding that she stood by her post.

In his memo, Sasse said “the First Amendment gives everyone the right to make an abject idiot of themselves, and that seems to be what this former instructor is doing here. So what to do?”

After bemoaning social media and the “faux-fighters drawing extra attention to online idiocy,” Sasse reiterated the principles of UF: that academic freedom and free speech were protected, that “education happens when someone engages new ideas,” and that “in the classroom, when we engage ideas, we start by recognizing the dignity of every person. (This universal dignity is exactly what terrorists like Hamas reject.)”

Sasse has attended campus vigils for Israel and reached out to Jewish alumni condemning those who don’t condemn Hamas. He added in his memo: “Our professors have the high and special calling of shepherding our students into engagement with hard issues inside the classroom. But that’s very different than activists using public dollars to enforce ideology.”

Fine’s post on Simmons was deleted Tuesday. The lawmaker has been tweeting for weeks about campuses in Florida being supportive of pro-Palestine protests and calling organizations like the Red Cross and UNICEF antisemitic. He said he never heard back from UF before Sasse’s public statement.

“Maybe it’s hard to give up being a senator or if blathering is how your value is measured, but we expect more,” he said of Sasse, referring to the president’s previous career as a U.S. senator.

Fine said he was “befuddled” by Sasse’s statement.

“To be fair,” he said, “what we’ve learned is generally, a lot of academics are pro-Hamas. Maybe Sasse isn’t being given the truth. But the university didn’t correct me.”

He further criticized Sasse, saying the president had failed “to protect Jewish children on campus.” It was a reference to the Students for Justice in Palestine group, which was ordered by the state to disband last month but remains intact pending further investigation by the State University System.

Last week, UF’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter filed a lawsuit against the state and the university over the attempt to disband their group. The lawsuit claimed the group’s First Amendment rights were being violated.

Simmons said she grew up in the South during the Jim Crow era, was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and worked in Mississippi in the 1960s. She worked for the Quaker organization Religious Society of Friends for 23 years in post-war Vietnam and Cambodia. She was sent to the Middle East, and spent time in Gaza in the 1990s. She later lived in Jordan for two years and often visited Israel and Palestine.

“It is shocking what has been happening in 2023, that people can be gunned down,” Simmons said. “Hospitals, schools gone. People thought they’re in their homes. Their homes turned to rubble.”

As someone who once taught and worked with Students for Justice in Palestine, she said she was “very alarmed” at leaders in Florida trying to hush dialogue about the topic.

That too is shocking, she said.

Divya Kumar covers higher education for the Tampa Bay Times, in partnership with Open Campus.