Don't give in to ‘the smallest, angriest group,’ university president says

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University of Florida President Ben Sasse said Sunday that he won’t copy other university leaders in prioritizing the opinions of the noisiest elements on their campuses.

Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sasse told host Jake Tapper: “We just don't negotiate with people who scream the loudest. That just doesn't make any sense to me.”

Sasse, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, added: “What you see happening on so many campuses across the country is, instead of drawing the line at speech and action, a lot of universities bizarrely give the most attention and most voice to the smallest, angriest group. And it's just not what we're going to do here.”

Last week saw large-scale arrests of demonstrators on campuses around the country amid continued protests by pro-Palestinian activists. At issue on those campuses has been whether the activists have crossed the line from free speech to intimidation, hate speech, property damage, and, perhaps most notably, disruption of the basic functions of the university.

Sasse specified that he was an absolutist on free speech — one of what he called the “five glorious freedoms in the First Amendment” — but that much of what is being seen on various campuses is not speech, and, therefore, can be curtailed.

“There are two things we're going to affirm over and over again,” Sasse said. “We will always defend your right to free speech and free assembly, and, also, we have time, place, and manner restrictions, and you don't get to take over the whole university. People don't get to spit at cops. You don't get to barricade yourselves in buildings. You don't get to disrupt somebody else's commencement. We don't allow protests inside.”

Sasse, who served as president of Midland University before being elected to the Senate, has long argued that Americans need to be able to debate their differences without acrimony, talking to one another rather than screaming at each other.

“A republic can’t survive if it’s filled with fanatics,” he wrote in his 2018 book “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — And How to Heal.” “We need to be able to identify and then to resist the habits that are driving us toward fanaticism. We are relational beings, and we are meant for community.”

On Sunday, Sasse said he expected graduation ceremonies would continue in Florida without disruptions.

“We have 17 colleges and schools. We're through about two-thirds of our commencements. They're not being disrupted,” he said.

“What you have is a lot of tears of moms of first-gen kids throwing their arms around their kids as they get to graduate. Obviously, a lot of these kids graduated high school four years ago. And, because of Covid, they didn't get a commencement. It's been a pretty glorious weekend of celebration around here," Sasse said.