Monday’s incident on the University of Florida’s campus in which a student was Tasered while speaking out during an assembly has sparked debate across the country over free speech and the use of a Taser by law enforcement officials.
While many students at CSU questioned the intentions of student Andrew Meyer, who was subdued by officers after drawing over his allotted question time at Sen. John Kerry’s speech, many expressed concerns about police resorting to Tasering Meyer while he allegedly resisted arrest.
Local attorney and CSU technical journalism instructor, Lee Christian, said the first amendment, especially in regards to free speech on college campuses, is a complex issue. But, simply put, he said limitations of speech are mostly going to be of a time and place manner.
“Certainly, a student could raise their hand and say ‘hey Christian, you suck’. the classroom is one of those public forums,” he said.
Yet, if a student was obviously disrupting another student’s learning then it could be justified to end the student’s disruptive speech, Christian said, but there has to be a legitimate motive to do so.
“You need a good reason to curtail someone’s speech,” he said.
Aside from the few situations on campus where free speech is certainly limited, like classrooms late at night and residence halls, most of the CSU campus is open to free speech.
“It should be expected,” Christian said.
And government is one of the most common topics students speak out against, which is not only legal, but also anticipated, Christian said.
“Getting in John Kerry’s face is something that needs to be tolerated (on university campuses), if not overly tolerated,” he said.
In regards to the UF case, assemblies are examples of times when free speech is more limited.
“If he was disrupting an assembly, he could be asked to leave,” Christian said. “But the Taser thing is totally different, people die from Tasers.”
At CSU, Police Department officers have been carrying Tasers since fall 2004. In a statement released by CSUPD, Tasers “are another tool with which law enforcement officers can defend themselves and others from combative, resisting, destructive and/or violent individuals.”
The statement continued, citing the effectiveness of Tasers in reducing injury to officers and suspects.
The UF incident incites memories on this campus from earlier this year when CSU changed its free speech policies, influenced by pressure from student activists and members of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Areas of peaceful assembly were expanded from the plaza outside the Lory Student Center to the entire campus itself. CSU dropped the prohibition of “references to alcoholic beverages and other drugs,” instead prohibiting advertisements that encouraged illegal behavior. CSU changed its Hate Incidents policy as well, which once prohibited “expressions of hostility,” but now only prohibits incidents of harassment and abuse.
Students and FIRE officials involved in the push for change said they were pleased with the results of the change in policy.
FIRE Media Director Emily Guidry said the UF incident was a different legal situation. However, FIRE officials agreed that the response from campus police had overstepped boundaries of common sense.
“Campus police and administrators can remove audience members who refuse to abide by reasonable rules, like time limitations on questions,” Guidry said. “But the problem here is obvious: the university police’s response was totally out of proportion and brutal.”
Some students CSU agree.
“The kid, I think, was just doing it as a prank, being annoying,” said Matt Kenfield, a senior speech communication major. “I do wish the police would’ve reacted differently about it; you think that eight police could probably take down one kid.”
Yet, Richard Borger, a freshman chemical engineering major at UF, said he felt the actions taken by the officers of his university were justified.
“He failed to obey a direct order from a law enforcement officer,” Borger said in a Facebook message. “If he would’ve just been calm, things would have went a lot better for him; unfortunately he could not do that, and it ended in him being Tasered.”
UF President Bernard Machen released a statement Tuesday saying that a formal investigation into Meyer’s arrest would be made, and that two campus officers had been put on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.
Staff writers Erik Myers and Jessi Stafford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.