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Politics pull the plug on Terry Tempest Williams' Florida gig

Utah writer's Florida speech postponed over politics
Political imbalance . . . too negative toward President Bush . . . blatantly political . . . too close to the Nov. 2 election. Sounds like refrains about liberal filmmaker Michael Moore's visit later this month to conservative Utah County.

But those words are coming from another part of the nation.

Florida Gulf Coast University President William Merwin and the university's board of trustees voted Wednesday to postpone the Oct. 24 convocation speech by Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams - a program that all freshmen are required to attend.

Concerned that she might make some anti-Bush remarks, he wants to delay her talk until after the Nov. 2 election, according to Susan Evans, spokeswoman for the 13-year-old, 6,100-student school in Fort Myers, Fla. She said Merwin's concern was "an issue of balance."

Merwin ''felt there would be only one point of view, in terms of partisan political statements, based on some of the things in [Williams' new book] The Open Space of Democracy - which are critical of only one of the presidential candidates: George W. Bush," Evans said.

Williams was not "dis-invited or uninvited," Evans stressed. "The event was postponed."

But that decision bothers Williams, who has returned her $5,000 honorarium and will not agree to being rescheduled as a post-election convocation speaker. However, in a letter to Merwin, she said she would "await a future invitation to speak" at some other event.

On Thursday in an interview, she said: "Democracy is an insecure landscape and it feels a little less secure today. I sense a deep erosion in the psyche of this country . . . and that's very, very troublesome."

According to The Associated Press, Merwin said he tried to include another speaker to balance Williams' point of view, but the author and her agent rejected that approach. He said he wanted to move the speech to another time that was less "politically confronting. I just don't want this to be a political circus at Florida Gulf Coast University," The AP reported him saying.

The AP also said that records show Merwin, who became university president in 1999, contributed $2,000 to the Bush/Cheney campaign in 2003, and has given $1,750 to the Florida Republican Party and Republican candidates since 2002.

"[Merwin] just went crazy," said Williams on Thursday, "saying I am a threat to the university, that it was his job to protect and advance his university, and that I have the potential to harm his students."

The irony is, the school's president is stopping the very thing the book is advocating: thoughtful, respectful listening to opposing points of view, Williams said.

First, she said, Merwin asked to see a copy of her planned remarks. She explained that she didn't work from a "canned" speech. "When I go to a university, I go a few days early so I can talk to students," she said. "My remarks to students are personal."

But she said Merwin made it clear that members of his board of trustees and Florida's Board of Regents are appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush - the president's brother.

Williams said she assured Merwin that bashing President Bush was neither her intent nor style. He then asked her to sign an affidavit that she would not represent a political point of view.

"I was not going to do that. It's a violation of freedom of speech just on principle," she said.

Williams described as "cordial" the last conversation she had with Merwin on Tuesday. That's when she inquired about the passage in the book he found troublesome.

He read from where Williams writes that she has been "sick at heart, unable to stomach or abide by this [President Bush's] administration's aggressive policies directed against the environment, education, social service, health care and our civil liberties - basically the wholesale destruction of seemingly everything that contributes to a free society, except the special interests of big business."

Williams then asked Merwin to read the preceding paragraph, which she says puts the passage in context.

"As you can see, [that passage shows] I am asking myself, 'How do I find that open space in myself' - to have meaningful dialogue with opposing points of view," she said. "He said he 'understood' - then he goes to the press and says something different."

Meanwhile, Williams said, she has heard from disappointed students and faculty members who are "shocked" by Merwin's action. Some students are organizing to have the decision rescinded, she said.

"I had one professor call me in tears, saying, 'This is what's happening in Florida. It's not Republican or Democrat; no individual feels their vote is safe here,' " Williams said.

She wants her returned $5,000 honorarium to go to students at the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education to create a forum for freedom of speech.

"It's the students who lose. It was their first convocation and it was postponed," Williams said. "And the president won't even use the word 'canceled' or 'censored.' "

 sykes@sltrib.com

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