In October 2017 the University of Florida took a bold, unpopular stand for true intellectual diversity and free speech — as an institution of higher learning should.

After the deadly August 2017 clash between white nationalists and Antifa counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia — during which a white nationalist plowed his car into a crowd of demonstrators, killing one woman and injuring almost 20 others — many major public universities rejected a petition to speak from Richard Spencer, the loathsome leader of the National Policy Institute, condemned by many as a white nationalist group.

UF did likewise, but with much apprehension, later relented. The state’s flagship university did so over the objections of protesters who rightfully criticized Spencer’s message, and despite then-Gov. Rick Scott’s emergency declaration, issued amid concern for the potential of violence.

In explaining why they reconsidered, UF administrators denounced Spencer’s “white supremacist rhetoric,” but grudgingly acknowledged that the university “as a state entity must allow free expression of all viewpoints.”

UF made the right decision, despite its wariness and appropriate dismissal of Spencer. If our universities refuse to allow and promote free speech, even speech the bulk of us find despicable, they create a stunted intellectual atmosphere — which, in turn, encapsulates some students in an ideological bubble in which they’ll seek refuge from all ideas they find distasteful, and which relegates others to a political ghetto, from which they will seek another outlet, perhaps to society’s detriment.

Yet it turns out some in power at UF saw the commitment to free speech as merely transactional.

Last December the UF chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group, sued the university, asserting its free speech rights had been violated.

At the time of the lawsuit UF collected from all its students a mandatory $19 per credit hour fee that funds a variety of events for student organizations. The money was split between groups defined as “budgeted” and “nonbudgeted,” and the university empowered the Student Government organization with control of the purse strings as well as veto power over certain activities. According to Alliance Defending Freedom, the nonprofit group that represented YAF, 48 budgeted student organizations could access a collective pot that exceeded $1 million, with many receiving automatic stipends. On the other hand, another 859 student groups had just $50,000 to divvy up.

YAF was a nonbudgeted group, and Student Government had denied its request to join the ranks of the budgeted. But YAF did receive a special exemption to obtain funding for a speaker. After YAF brought conservative author Dinesh D’Souza to campus in April 2018, Student Government changed its policy to bar nonbudgeted groups from receiving funding for outside speakers.

YAF had sought $6,225 to bring NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and conservative author and screenwriter Andrew Klavan to Gainesville. But the group’s request was denied under the revised policy. YAF subsequently challenged the policy, maintaining its members were being forced to pay into a system that funded appearances by progressive speakers who oppose their ideals, while blocking them from inviting speakers of their choosing.

Last week, YAF dropped its legal action after UF agreed to change the policy so event funding is disbursed in a “viewpoint-neutral” manner, and pay YAF $66,000 in legal and other costs.

As ADF lawyer Caleb Dalton said afterward, college students should not be forced to sue to protect their constitutional rights. Nor should they be required to subsidize political opponents, without the other side doing likewise. Yet if legal duress was necessary to pressure UF to surrender a misguided defense of an indefensible rule, so be it.

UF administrators and Student Government leaders may not like the people YAF wants to hear, but the previous policy nurtured the lopsided brainwashing so evident on college campuses nationwide. Albeit later than necessary, UF earns kudos for realizing that supporting free speech and diversity of thought meant eradicating this discrimination. “Tolerance,” after all, cuts both ways.

An editorial from The Ledger in Lakeland.

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