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No speech evolves into a free speech

Terry Tempest Williams
Terry Tempest Williams

Although not at the invitation of Florida Gulf Coast University officials, Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams will still speak there Oct. 24: FGCU students who heard the school's administration wanted to postpone the speech until after the Nov. 2 election banded together and asked that she keep the appointed date.

Now Williams will be speaking without compensation from the university, and students will not be required to attend her presentation. She heard Friday that her talk will be held at the student union on the Florida campus.

FGCU President Bill Merwin earlier this week decided to delay Williams' speech. It had been scheduled for a convocation that is mandatory for freshmen. Merwin's reasoning stemmed from an anti-Bush statement Williams made in her recent book, "The Open Space of Democracy."

"He was concerned about the opportunity for balance," said FGCU spokeswoman Susan Evans.

Previously, Merwin had asked Williams to provide an advance copy of comments from her speech or to put in writing that her speech would be nonpartisan in nature. Williams declined on both counts.

Merwin's decision was backed Wednesday in a 10 to 1 vote by the FGCU Board of Trustees. Donna Price Henry, the lone "no" vote, said Merwin told the board he feared the fallout from state lawmakers if Williams were allowed to speak before Nov. 2.

"I hate the thought of the university bowing to some political threat," said Henry, who is the FGCU faculty senate president.

When students caught wind of Merwin's decision, several groups, including college Republicans, launched a bipartisan effort to get Williams to speak as planned. The Oct. 24 date coincides with the school's "First Year Experience" convocation.

"What moves me deeply as a writer is to have the ideas that are at the core of this book embodied by the students themselves," Williams said Friday by phone from Colorado.

Williams returned the $5,000 check originally given her — money that came from state funds — to the school when it became clear Merwin wanted to postpone the convocation. Students are required to read three books, including Williams', and to discuss them during the semester. It's unclear at this time who will speak at the actual FGCU-sanctioned convocation.

Williams said she wants the $5,000 to go toward creation of a campus forum for freedom of speech. She, along with students, has invited Merwin to her appearance as an act of "reconciliation."

In comparing her situation to filmmaker Michael Moore, who is scheduled to speak Oct. 20 at Utah Valley State College, Williams said she fears for democracy in this country. When it was announced last month that Moore would speak at UVSC at a cost of $40,000, which will be covered by student fees, an effort was led by conservative students to see that Moore would not come to the campus.

"What saddens me is that the climate of fear creates these kinds of craven acts, that our universities and institutions of higher education, on whom we have always counted to be champions and protectors of freedom of speech, begin to crumble," Williams said.

FGCU associate English professor Jim Wohlpart was part of a committee that secured Williams last May as the convocation speaker, a decision that Merwin supported at the time.

"It's not a partisan, Bush-bashing election speech," Wohlpart told the Deseret Morning News. "It's learning to heal the divide that exists in this nation."

Williams said that two of the three essays in her new book had already made it into print last May and that Merwin should have known the nature of her work. The actual book came out last month.

Merwin and Williams discussed, by phone, a line from her book that described how the author is "sick at heart" because President Bush is in office. She also gave reasons why she felt that way. Williams said she also pointed Merwin to additional text that explains the need for a "calm" heart and to find "compassionate" ways to meet each other's opposing views with mutual respect.

"She critiques herself in her own book," Wohlpart added.

Williams said Merwin took her comment out of context when he said that those words were "offensive" and that her speech at FGCU could put the state-funded school in jeopardy.

Merwin was unavailable for comment.

Williams also said Merwin told her that the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees public higher education, and the school's board of trustees are made up of members who are appointed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother.

In a letter to Merwin, Williams wrote, "Censorship betrays the students' intelligence, individual power of discernment and their own passionate exploration of ideas as they prepare to vote."

In letters representing Orion Society, part of Orion Books, which published Williams' new book, Merwin was referred to as having a "lack of vision and intellectual courage."


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com