Column: Banner controversy at UF is lesson in free speech

The University of Florida campus. The Gainesville Sun.
The University of Florida campus. The Gainesville Sun.
Published March 12, 2019

A couple of weeks ago, the University of Florida Police Department responded to a situation involving freedom of speech. On a college campus, that's hardly surprising.

Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group, had hung a banner on UF's Plaza of the Americas that read "Build the Wall." YAF had a permit to hang the banner from two metal poles at the edge of the plaza. A few hours later, it was torn down and stolen. YAF made a new banner and hung it the next day in the same spot. Someone tried to tear down the banner again, but this time YAF members watched and took video as the two people ran away from the scene.

The YAF students gave chase . UPD officers and staff members from UF's Office of the Dean of Students - an office within the Division of Student Affairs -- arrived moments later.

UPD and Student Affairs staffers, as they frequently do, used the incident as what we in higher education like to call a teachable moment. The two groups of students were separated and received instruction on the First Amendment and where people's rights begin and end. Staff reinforced that a university is a place where students learn to think critically and exercise their voice and it is within that framework that these two conversations were held.

It is my fondest hope that the students who attempted to take the YAF banner are more aware of the rights of their fellow students and the risks they take when violating another student's right to freedom of speech, as much as they might oppose the content of that speech. It's also my hope that YAF students understand how speech, while protected, impacts their fellow students.

Diversity and inclusion is crucial to our campus community.

We usually hear diversity used in reference to race, ethnicity and gender identity, all of which are appropriate and important. Also important to a vibrant and inclusive campus community is diversity of thought.

As a public institution, we are bound to uphold the First Amendment. The University of Florida supports the First Amendment, including by peaceful and lawful protest. As an institution of higher education, we have a special responsibility to promote the free exchange of ideas. UF President Kent Fuchs said not long ago, " ... It is up to every student, faculty member, staff member, and myself to demonstrate our university values of respect and inclusion in all that we do."

Which leads me to my most important point: Freedom of speech applies to all opinions, not just those we agree with. Tolerance and respect must be demonstrated across the entire political spectrum - liberal, conservative and everything else.

Did YAF engage in freedom of speech when it hung its banner? Yes. Was taking YAF's banner an exercise of free speech? No. Would the students who took their banner have been within their rights if they had hung their own banner expressing their differing views? Absolutely .

Cornel West, a professor of the practice of public philosophy and African and African-American studies at Harvard University who describes himself on his website as "a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual," said in Inside Higher Ed in 2017, "The pursuit of knowledge and the maintenance of a free and democratic society require the cultivation and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth. These virtues will manifest themselves and be strengthened by one's willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge one's beliefs and who represent causes one disagrees with and points of view one does not share.''

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That's why all of us should seek respectfully to engage with people who challenge our views. And we should oppose efforts to silence those with whom we disagree --especially on college and university campuses.

Does UF welcome students with conservative views? Yes.

Liberal views? Certainly.

And just as we want and welcome students with many different viewpoints, we also want and welcome students from many different ethnicities, races, sexualities and backgrounds- including those from sparsely populated rural counties and teeming urban ones, students headed for the Peace Corps and students who proudly serve in ROTC, veterans and students from countries around the world. It is who we are as a public institution, and I believe that allowing all to speak and share their viewpoint is who we are as a country.

I have noticed a trend that I find troubling. More and more frequently, I hear students say that while their speech is fine and should be protected, the speech of others offends them and should not be protected. West reminds us that it is paramount that we engage with those who disagree with us in order to maintain and sustain our democracy.

YAF had a constitutional right to hang their banner, and the university will continue to protect their right, as well as every other student's right, to free speech. A face-to-face conversation would be more in line with West's advice. My hope is that our campus community and our nation also find ways to follow West's guidance and "cultivate and practice of the virtues of intellectual humility, openness of mind, and, above all, love of truth" that go beyond banners, protests, and counter protests,

We must guard against the stripping of our constitutional right to free speech. We must also find ways to dialogue across our differences. Both are required for a vibrant democracy.

Perhaps the best example we could encourage our students to follow is that of English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, author of the book "The Friends of Voltaire." In it, she penned this famous line: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.''

That is true tolerance.

David W. Parrott is vice president for student affairs at the University of Florida.