Thursday, September 20, 2007

Where's the Adult?

A couple of days have passed since the firestorm erupted over the Andrew Meyers event at the University of Florida. At the UF Accent program which brings public speakers to campus featuring former Democratic presidential nominee and US Sen. John Kerry, Meyers, a UF senior, dove into an impassioned diatribe about Kerry's behavior in the 2004 election and ended his one and a half minute speech with a question about Kerry's involvement with the Skull and Bones Society at Yale. Though the student's style was confrontational, his delivery impassioned and his question coming at the end of a long series of proclamations of revealed truth, Kerry repeatedly indicated he wished to answer the student's question.

We know about what happened next from the YouTube video Meyers had a fellow student make. In the video, as Meyers ranted some students are seen rolling their eyes, others listening in rapt attention. But the student head of the Accent program, a position historically occupied by future politicos in training, was not amused. First he had the student's microphone cut off. Then he told university police to arrest Meyers.

Not surprisingly, Meyer's did not react well to being manhandled by university police. His repeated response was "I didn't do anything wrong." Reports that the student was being "escorted from the building" are at best kind if not outright spin. This young man was dragged from the microphone, his shirt partially ripped off his body, and ultimately was thrown to the floor by several officers. It was at that point, with the young man clearly under the control of several physically superior officers, that they used a taser to electrically shock the student despite his now famous plea, "Don't tase me, bro." The sound of the student screaming still echoes in my head.

As the details of this young man's life have emerged, it has become clear he is a publicity seeker. His website includes a number of videos of himself seeking attention through stunts. His comments in the police car enroute to the jail (he was arrested for resisting arrest and inciting a riot) suggest that he did not blame the police for their conduct. In the meantime, the university has suspended the officers in question and ordered an investigation of the event.

Perhaps it is because this is my alma mater, the school at which my parents met, the school at which I spent six years of my life as an adult and many years as a child on campus for football games and a summer at the university lab school, that I feel such embarrassment about this event. I was so upset on Tuesday I could not think straight and got little done on the day I reserve for grading and class prep. But it has been the reactions of many I love and whose opinions I trust that has upset me even further.

I think it way too easy to buy into blame the victim and simply brush off this event as the result of a publicity stunt gone awry. Even more disturbing is the clear tendency among many to suggest the student got what he deserved. No one deserves to be electrically shocked. Even if we decide that tasing someone is the lesser evil than having them continue destructive behavior, it nonetheless remains evil. People have died from being tasered. It is a form of coercive force that should ALWAYS be used as a last resort, never the first. Andrew Meyer is no angel. But he is a human being worthy of having his person respected regardless of his conduct. And it is precisely when concerns for order and security presumptively outweigh the duty to honor human dignity that the society in question reveals its potential for tyranny.

In my discussions with one friend, I referred to events such as this in Berkeley, where I spent four years of my life while in seminary and grad school, in which prophets with messages from various gods wandered in off the streets and proclaimed revealed truth, sometimes for many more minutes than Andrew Meyer used in his comparatively short diatribe. While such events almost always managed to annoy the gathered participants of the events, the self-appointed prophets were usually indulged, endured but rarely removed and never physically accosted. It seems to me that public events require a wide berth for people like Andrew Meyer. Annoyance at inconsiderate speakers does not rise to the level of threats to security, the only time when coercive force should ever be seen as justifiable.

The First Amendment's protections of free expression were designed for publicity seekers and impassioned prophetic speakers like Andrew Meyers. It's precisely unpopular speech that is protected by the amendment, not everyone's speech. Popular speech needs no protections - it pleases the majority and thereby runs no risk of having the majority use its power to squelch unpopular speech, the tyranny of the majority.

A family member repeated the Fox "News" mantra that Meyers had "refused a lawful order." I guess I'd question whether the order was lawful. As Meyers said, "I didn't do anything wrong" and other than annoying some of the audience and the Accent staff, I observed no laws being broken. If one is not engaged in wrongdoing, how could the order to desist be lawful? Because the Accent director said so? Case law has repeatedly affirmed that people have a right to resist unlawful detention. But, beyond legal considerations, this line of argument does reveal the parent/child construction of citizen v. government power that lies at the heart of my disturbance over this event. It leads me to ask where the adult was in this case.

Universities are places of learning. As I observed in northern California, patient endurance of blowhards in public meetings serves to respect both the dignity of the individual involved (even when they have been inconsiderate of the dignity of the other individuals present) as well as teaching the lesson that, while democracy is inevitably messy, a little patience and an awful lot of forebearance is the best way to insure that democracy can work. What lesson was taught at UF Monday? Sadly, that impatience backed by the use of coercive force is the way we conduct our business at the University of Florida. Now, apply that lesson to Iran and its hesitation to negotiate about nuclear power plants. Or a political prisoner who's not providing the information an interrogator seeks. Or the homeless person frightening tourists in downtown nightclub districts by his mere presence.

For those who would avoid social responsibility, exonerating armed police officers who manhandle pests at public events by locating all responsibility in the individual, there is a slight problem. Such an analysis presumes a fact not in evidence - that a level playing field exists. But the parties here are nowhere close to equal. Andrew Meyers was armed with a microphone and an inordinate amount of chutzpah. The UPD officers were armed with guns, tasers and the color of law providing them the authority and implicit approval for their actions from the public they are sworn to protect. While the UPD charged the student with inciting a riot, the only real energy in that auditorium emerged at the point the officers had manhandled and tased a fellow student. How was the public protected here?

I do expect college students to behave in less than an adult manner from time to time. I certainly did and I sometimes console myself on the other side of the lectern at the university after a day of rudeness from my students with the notion of my karma catching up with me. But I do expect university personnel to behave in an adult manner. I expect universities to model behavior it would want at least its own students if not the rest of the society it serves to emulate. And I expect those entrusted with authority, power and lethal force to use it judiciously and, in the case of coercive force, only as a last resort, not as a fairly immediate response to irritation. In short, if we are going to cast university v. students and government v. citizens in parent/child relational terms, we must demand that the parent behave as an adult. That didn't happen at the University of Florida Monday as a wide variety of observers have noted, including today's Orlando Sentinel editorial.

I agree with the UF Independent Alligator's take on this: the kid was a jerk, the arrest was at best questionable, but the use of force including a taser was unwarranted. The university owes this student - and the general public the university serves - an apology.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.