The tasering of free speech?

The story from Gainesville, Fla., this week was too good for me to let pass without some comment.

A student at the University of Florida (one of my alma maters) was tasered at a lecture by Senator and former Presidential candidate John Kerry. He ignored requests that he give up the microphone during the question-and-answer session following the speech, and resisted campus security efforts to escort him out of the lecture hall.

In the aftermath, Andrew Meyer, who has written articles for the Independent Florida Alligator student newspaper, has become an instant YouTube star and a subject for debate – “Free Speech Hero or Immature Jerk?”

I’m leaning toward the latter, with reservations. One, I don’t believe anyone should be tasered unless they’re proving to be an immediate and violent threat to the public safety – a situation that clearly didn’t exist here. And two, as a former journalism student who came of age in the era of the “Question Authority!” bumper sticker, I have no problem with anyone posing difficult, even impertinent, questions to public officials.

But I’d offer a couple of pieces of advice to Meyer if I had the opportunity, as he obviously has a couple of things to learn about the way the world works if he really wants to be a journalist.

Lesson #1: You are not the story, no matter how much you might want to be. Judging from his e-mail address (famouswriterman@aol.com), the content of his website and his self-admitted penchant for confrontation, Meyer appears to love the sound of his own voice above almost anything else. He certainly wouldn’t be the first person with a massive ego to ever become a journalist, but he might try doing some actual reporting to try to make a name for himself.

Lesson #2: You’re not always going to own the microphone. It’s been a blessing and a curse that YouTube, blogs and personal websites have democratized the means of production in the communications field, giving anyone who has an opinion the opportunity to find an immediate platform for it. No waiting, no pesky editorial filter.

For years cultural critics have skewered our “instant gratification” society for its overindulgence in everything from sexual pleasure to rampant consumerism. Now we can have instant gratification of our egos as the self-publishers of our every thought about everything. That’s fine when the microphone belongs to us.

However, in a public forum such as the Kerry speech, someone else makes the rules and has the right to do so to keep order and guarantee fair access to speech to everyone who wants the opportunity. (I’ve always liked President Reagan’s felicitous phrase, “I’m paying for this microphone,” objecting to his mike being cut off during a presidential candidates’ debate which his campaign helped to fund in New Hampshire in 1980.)

According to accounts of the part of the incident that wasn’t captured on video, Meyer the aspiring journalist engaged in behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated in any respectable news conference. He broke in line in front of other students. He exceeded his allotted time with “questions” that appeared to be mostly editorial comments (a major irritant for me in any public forum). Obviously not a person who’s used to the concept of “you’re finished talking now,” Meyer made a poor choice in not going away quietly. He chose instead to resist, escalating the situation.

So does that mean that every obnoxious, vocal person who believes the rules don’t apply to them should be tasered? I’m leaning toward “no,” but in the words of Jack Benny, “I’m thinking it over.”

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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