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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Free speech is a funny thing, isn't it? Who decided it was OK to yell at someone for wearing fur, but illegal to yell "Fire!" in a crowded room?

Debate about First Amendment rights is a hot topic right now, to be sure, with the U.S. Supreme Court deciding over the summer that a high school student's banner proclaiming "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" is not protected by free speech. More recently, Amazon.com refused to turn over customers' purchasing records to the FBI, saying that would violate customers' First Amendment right to privacy, and on Tuesday, the FBI canceled its investigation into the issue.

And we haven't missed out on our fair share here on campus. First, we had the Taser incident, which many students mistakenly called a free-speech issue and even staged protests in the name of. And then we had the right-to-free-but-silent-speech protest at former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' speech.

But probably the free-speech issue garnering the most attention recently is the ads posted by members of UF College Republicans and UF Law School Republicans promoting a documentary, "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West." The signs, if you are somehow not aware, read, "Radical Islam Wants You Dead."

Not surprisingly, Muslim students took offense to this. Students who aren't Muslim took offense to this. Nevertheless, the fliers were protected by the First Amendment.

But that didn't stop students from getting mad. Blog posts were written. E-mails were sent. Vitriol flowed from both sides. Muslim students didn't appreciate the implication that their religion is a violent one - because it isn't. The students responsible for the fliers didn't believe they had done anything wrong. It escalated to the point that UF administrators had to step in, and Patricia Telles-Irvin, vice president for student affairs, e-mailed the entire student body an official response Monday.

In the e-mail, Telles-Irvin took neither group's side. She stated that what the student groups wrote on the ads was protected by the First Amendment, but encouraged them to extend an apology to Muslim students.

We enjoy a privilege in this country with our right to freedom of speech, but with privilege comes responsibility. The groups that advertised with an offensive statement abused their privilege, and now they refuse to do the responsible thing. A letter to the editor printed in Wednesday's Alligator showed the groups' blatant refusal to apologize.

That's unfortunate.

Yes, it is perfectly protected by the Constitution, but that doesn't make saying "Radical Islam Wants You Dead" OK. Maybe some people are sick of political correctness. Maybe some people don't care if what they say and do hurts others. But some things hit below the belt, and what these fliers read was one of them.

At this point, the groups aren't very likely to change their minds about apologizing. We can only hope everyone will learn from this experience and think twice before plastering campus with fliers. Remember what your mama taught you? Think before you speak (or write, in this case).

To be effective, advertisements don't have to be offensive. They don't have to be disrespectful - especially to someone else's religion, which is always a sensitive subject. Now, instead of the focus being on the documentary, all the attention is on the controversy surrounding five little words.

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