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Legislating free speech? Toughen up, buttercup

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Of the many wonderful things the late University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt said and did in her life, perhaps none echoes with more relevance today than these simple words: Toughen up, buttercup.

Sally Jenkins, the terrific Washington Post columnist, reported that’s how Summitt dealt with an assistant coach who was upset almost to the point of tears over what must have been a relatively minor team problem.

It was good advice. People on either side of the political equation should listen, especially given the debate bubbling up about the First Amendment right of free speech.

As Mitch Perry of FloridaPolitics.com reported Thursday, the Florida House Subcommittee on Post-Secondary Education pondered on proposed legislation called the Campus Free Speech Act. Stanley Kurtz, a conservative academic, told lawmakers the measure would defend the right for people to speak their minds at the state’s universities.

It would require universities to create policy that reminds students that free speech is vital to the nation.

Well, OK so far.

It also would prohibit administrators from disinviting speakers, no matter how controversial, if people on campus want to hear from them.

The slope is getting a little slippery, but go on …

It would subject students or anyone else who interferes with the free-speech rights of others to official discipline.

Getting very slippery …

It would allow people who believe their free-speech rights were hindered by the university to recover court costs and attorney’s fees.

Getting a little out of control …

Conservatives have complained for decades that college campuses are liberal “safe spaces” where political correctness is the understood rule and dissent is not tolerated. I’ll concede that there have been many cases where seemingly innocent remarks have exploded into firestorms.

Take the case of former Yale University lecturer Erika Christakis, who resigned under immense pressure after having the audacity to challenge an edict by the school administration that set guidelines for Halloween costumes. Students were prohibited from choosing a costume that could be considered racially or sexually insensitive.

Christakis’ high crime?

She wrote this: “What happens when one person’s offense is another person’s pride? Should a costume wearer’s intent or context matter? Can we always tell the difference between a mocking costume and one that satirizes ignorance? In what circumstances should we allow — or punish — youthful transgression?”

The backlash from students and faculty was furious, almost mob-like. That a grand bit of irony since the university’s demand for tolerance turned into intolerance for anyone who strayed an inch outside of the lines.

I know what Pat Summitt would have told the protestors.

Students everywhere should learn that lesson because – listen closely now – when they get into the real world, not everyone will agree with them. Not everything they hear and see will reaffirm their values. They will be told “no” when the answer they expect to hear is “yes.”

Their ears will be assaulted by cretins like Milo Yiannopoulos, the creepy former Breitbart wingnut whose recent speaking engagement at Cal-Berkeley was canceled but not before rioters protesting his appearance caused thousands of dollars in damage.

Protest: good.

Riot: bad.

Protesting is a form of free speech, too. Kurtz’s proposal would limit that by punishing people who try to shout down a speaker with whom they disagree. If that’s the case, what would have happened to Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who yelled “You lie” at President Obama during a 2009 speech about health care?

We don’t need another law to protect free speech. The First Amendment has that covered. It wouldn’t hurt for universities to remind students and faculty that dissent must be tolerated and conflicting opinions should be openly and civilly discussed.

If it strays over the line into personal attacks about a person’s lifestyle, religion or looks, punishment is appropriate.

Otherwise, heed Pat Summit’s advice.

Life is a contact sport.

Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also including hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons – Ben and Patrick.

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