I have watched, with intense interest, the preparations and conversations that have surrounded the visit by Richard Spencer to UF’s campus in Gainesville. I have been a part of the conversations regarding UF President Kent Fuchs’ decisions and a supporter of how UF has placed the safety of the campus and Gainesville community at the forefront. Fuchs and his team have carefully balanced the absolute requirement for student safety with UF’s strong commitment to the freedom of speech.
Let me say clearly that as a Jewish person I am particularly disturbed by the views of Spencer and his organization. In addition, I unequivocally denounce hate, bigotry, racism and violence and those who endorse or embrace it. I also denounce those who call for violence in protest to speech they find offensive and hateful.
Others have said this. What has motivated me to speak out is not what has been said by many, but instead what has been said by too few.
Freedom of speech is central to our democracy and our society precisely because it protects speech that some (or many) may find offensive or hateful. Thoughts and utterances, with which we all agree, do not need constitutional protection.
A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed to a study that showed 30 percent of college students believe the First Amendment does not apply to hate speech. Have we really failed to teach our young adults about the founding principles of our democracy? The United Faculty of Florida adds its voice by condemning Fuchs and UF’s Board of Trustees for “hosting” Spencer. Allowing constitutionally protected speech does not condone its content, it is the centerpiece of academic freedom.
Rather than excusing students from class or assignments if they feel threatened by people espousing viewpoints antithetical to our shared values, shouldn’t we require them instead to show up for a class that teaches them why it is so important to stand up for the First Amendment?
Let the maelstrom that surrounds the visit of white supremacists to UF’s campus alert us to an undeclared state of emergency: We are failing our students when we miss the opportunity to have them do the hard work of challenging their feelings with their intellects.
If we aspire to take our place as one of America’s best public universities, we must affirm our commitment to providing our students and faculty access to the marketplace of ideas — especially when we don’t like what is for sale. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to teach our future leaders to listen critically to ideas with which they do not agree, in order for them to come up with better ones.
Jason J. Rosenberg is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the Orthopaedic Institute in Gainesville. He is a member of the UF Board of Trustees and chairs the Educational Policy Committee. The opinions expressed are those of an individual board member and not the entire Board of Trustees.