Recently a few media outlets inaccurately reported that members of a Florida Atlantic University student organization were unlawfully disciplined for protesting a speaker at an event on the Boca Raton campus earlier this year. These inaccurate reports irresponsibly repeat one-sided and baseless accusations. FAU released a statement on Aug. 14 that addressed these unfortunate reports. I think it is important to share the full statement:
“Florida Atlantic University is unable to comment regarding the specifics of any student conduct case due to state and federal student privacy laws. However, reports that any students have been disciplined for lawfully exercising their rights to free speech and public demonstration are incorrect and misleading. The University, as part of its student disciplinary process, provides the option for all students engaged in that process to enter into voluntary resolutions that are mutually agreed upon. Any student that objects to a proposed resolution is free to avail him/herself of the University’s full disciplinary process and is not required to accept any condition as part of that voluntary resolution. Further, reports that the anti-bias and diversity training implemented at FAU constitutes “re-education” training are both offensive and grossly inaccurate. FAU prides itself on being one of the most diverse campuses in America, and we strive to maintain an environment that is both welcoming and open to vigorous, intellectual debate.”
FAU is a “marketplace of ideas” – a phrase used by the Supreme Court to describe the role of public universities in upholding free speech. The University respects the rights of all persons within our diverse community to lawfully express divergent views, including views that may be offensive or painful to some. Our nation’s bedrock principles of free speech prohibit public universities from regulating lawful speech in public forums based on content. FAU takes very seriously its responsibility to promote and protect the rights of free speech and expression, including the rights to assemble and peaceably protest and demonstrate. These rights are inseparable from FAU’s core missions of teaching, research and public service.
However, the rights of free speech and expression are not absolute. It has famously been said that the right of free speech does not include the right to falsely yell “fire!” in a crowded theater. The rights of theater patrons to safely enjoy the show they are attending outweigh the right of an individual to falsely yell “fire,” no matter how deeply he or she may wish to yell it.
For similar reasons, not all public demonstrations and assemblies are permitted at all times in all places. FAU provides extensive opportunities for exercising the right of free expression, but it also respects the rights of its students to sleep in their residence hall rooms, attend classes in FAU classrooms, or cheer on the Owls athletics teams at sporting events without having those activities disrupted by protestors. FAU balances these occasionally competing rights by placing reasonable, content-neutral restrictions on how, where, and when individuals may protest or demonstrate on University grounds. University policy thus prohibits protests in campus buildings, other indoor facilities, or athletic or recreational facilities unless specifically permitted in writing by the appropriate University official.
Similarly, demonstrations and assemblies at the University may not interfere with scheduled University ceremonies or events or obstruct or disrupt the continuance of a speaker. You may not like a speaker who is lawfully speaking at an FAU event; you may profoundly disagree with what that speaker has to say; and you may express your disagreement through lawful protest at appropriate times and places on our campus. But you may not interrupt or disrupt the right of that speaker to speak, or the right of the audience to hear.
This simple concept -- that one person’s right to free speech may not silence another’s -- has been sadly overlooked in the misreporting of the earlier event. A speaker who was lawfully invited to speak on campus was interrupted in the middle of his speech by individuals who disagreed with his message. That is not allowed, so the University took appropriate, measured steps to enable the speaker to finish his speech and to hold accountable those who attempted to deprive the speaker and his audience of their rights.
The University’s actions had absolutely nothing to do with the message of either the speaker or the protestors. Both are welcome to lawfully express their views on our campus, but neither may deny or disrupt the right of the other to do the same.
We rely on University officials to preserve and protect these rights and to enforce University policy. It is both unfair and inappropriate to personally attack any officials for lawfully executing their duties. It is equally unacceptable to assail any members of the FAU community -- including invited guests -- for lawfully exercising their legal rights. The development of an attitude of tolerance, which is essential to the success of both personal and international relationships, is a key component of a university education. At FAU, we are doing our best to promote the vigorous exchange of ideas within an environment of tolerance, civility and respect, and to encourage our students and community members to adopt those principles and apply them in their dealings with one another.