UF would Tase you again, bro!
UF would Tase you again, bro!
Editor of the Editorial Page
Sunday, May 04, 2008
After the sort of soul-searching only higher education can produce, the University of Florida has come to an important conclusion about that Tasering of a student back in September:
UF would do it again.
The tortured 52-page report by the wonderfully named Committee on a Civil, Safe and Open Environment doesn’t say that directly. The next time, campus police would try other options and use more sense. Good thought. But after you get past all the supplements, footnotes and amens to the First Amendment, you reach this key phrase: "Conduct is not protected." And conduct, not speech, got Andrew M. Meyer, UF student and journalist wannabe, Tasered.
John Kerry had come to Gainesville and was taking questions. Mr. Meyer wanted to know why Sen. Kerry hadn’t contested the 2004 election. Mr. Meyer wanted to know why President Bush hadn’t been impeached. If you watch the video, it’s clear that Mr. Meyer cared about making a spectacle, not getting answers. He wouldn’t leave the microphone. Organizers turned it off and asked him to step back. When he didn’t, a campus cop used the Taser as Mr. Meyer exclaimed, "Don’t Tase me, bro!"
The YouTube path to fame
It was wrong for the officer to use the Taser, because it was just the sort of act Mr. Meyer wanted to provoke. Like so many others in the YouTube age – the video of the Tasering went up quickly – he tried to take the Notoriety shortcut past Hard Work and Genuine Talent.
Mr. Meyer had a blog, which these days is like saying you have a driver license. It offers garden-variety, conspiracy-driven political conjecture that might seem insightful after several shots of tequila: "Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel get kicked out of debates because TV is allergic to the truth."
In the first weeks after the incident, though, Mr. Meyer got his fame cameo, including an appearance on the Today show. "Don’t Tase me, bro!" T-shirts were selling on the Internet. Ah, but the last posting on the donttaserme blog, linked from theandrewmeyer.com, was more than three months ago. It concludes with a warning to be "vigilent." Obviously, that vigilance doesn’t apply to proofreading.
If this had happened most places, the reaction would have been muted. At a university, though, it became An Issue.
UF President Bernie Machen convened the faculty-student committee, which spent months turning the simple – police, better understand restraint; students, better understand the difference between questioning and grandstanding – into the complex. It produced an executive summary, recommendations and "lessons learned." There were appendices. The work of the Committee on a Safe, Civil and Open Environment probably was a big topic at the Faculty Club.
Hereinafter termed free speech
And why not? The committee contacted 12 universities to examine free-speech policies and attitudes. Look at the sort of stuff it produced:
"What is ‘free speech’? There is no simple definition of free speech interests protected by the First Amendment (hereinafter termed free speech). While the term is often used as a slogan, it is a very nuanced concept, highly dependent on the specific facts of the situation in which the speech occurs … Several elements define the limits of free speech: the content of the speech, the location of the speaker, the time, place and manner of the speech, and whether it is symbolic speech or conduct."
My goodness, the committee even concluded that when speakers visit, "the procedure used to select questions, when a written question format is used, should assure no censorship or appearance of censorship occurs." Certainly, that would be a good change, if any sort of censorship had occurred back in September.
But it didn’t. Still, the committee examined in detail whether UF is sufficiently tolerant of dissent. The happy verdict? "The University of Florida provisions cited above give faculty, staff, and students broad opportunities for dissent." And here’s another key point: "They, however, do not give every person at the university an unbounded right to dissent on any topic at any time."
Admittedly, if you watch the Sunday gasbags or Washington reporters at news conferences, the art of asking probing, revealing questions can seem dead. Like Mr. Meyer, they care more about their questions than the answers. Could there be a future in journalism for Mr. Meyer after all? If so, don’t let me be around to see it, bro.
Randy Schultz is the editor of the editorial page of The Palm Beach Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org