Acclaimed author Terry Tempest Williams is currently on the road for a cross-country “Open Space of Democracy Tour” sponsored by Orion Magazine and Orion Books, publisher of her most recent book, The Open Space of Democracy.

Photo: Mark Babushkin.

Wednesday, 6 Oct 2004

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah

When two young Canadians embarked on an extraordinary journey to follow the caribou migration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Being Caribou, a film by the National Film Board of Canada), they first sought the counsel of a Gwich’in elder in the village of Old Crow.

He said, “Plan for the unexpected and when you meet it, meet it with calm.”

As we embark on this “Open Space of Democracy Tour” — and I say we because this is being done in the name of community and the Orion Grassroots Network — we have indeed met “the unexpected.”

Today, President William Merwin (not to be confused with the poet William Merwin) of the Florida Gulf Coast University made the decision to postpone the Freshmen Convocation where I was to speak on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2004.

The students have been reading The Open Space of Democracy as one of their common readers.

President Merwin also made the decision to cancel, I mean postpone, all events associated with the Convocation, including the Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture I was to deliver the following day. His decision was a result of statements I have made in print that were negative about President George W. Bush.

When he expressed his point of view to two faculty members, Jim Wohlpart, chair of the Arts and Humanities Department, and Peter Corcoran, they argued strongly on behalf of the students that I be allowed to speak, assuring the president that this was never intended to be a “Bash Bush Rally” but rather a thoughtful presentation on how we might bypass political rhetoric and find our way toward our own humanity as we engage in meaningful dialogue and deep listening. They assured him that my allegiance was not to political polemics, but poetry.

It is my understanding, following this discussion, that the president then asked the professors to convey to me that in order for me to come to Florida Gulf Coast University, I would need to sign a statement that would ensure two things: 1) I would not represent a political point of view, and 2) I would not criticize the president of the United States, George W. Bush, in my remarks.

I refused to sign the agreement.

Of course, I hold a “political point of view.” Hopefully, every American holds a particular point of view that is based on their own values and ethics, informed by their own experience and intellectual inquiry. We exercise this point of view every time we participate in the majesty of the vote. And on principles of free speech, I refused to sign “a loyalty oath” that would say I would not criticize George W. Bush.

The negotiations deteriorated and President Merwin requested a phone conversation with me. I called him today at around 3:30 p.m. his time. We talked openly and candidly for an hour or so. It was cordial, yet firm on both sides.

I asked President Merwin to share with me his concerns. He was direct. The Florida Board of Regents and his own Board of Trustees at FGCU are all appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of the president. His donors at the university are largely supporters of the Bush brothers. In the name of “political balance” he could not put his university at risk, one week before the election. It was that simple.

“If you are looking for political balance,” I said, “it looks like I’m your answer.”

He did not see the humor.

President Merwin went on to say he had “survived 20 years as a university president by not doing stupid things.”

(The provost was with him in the room on this conference call if anyone would like to verify this conversation).

I must tell you, friends and readers, in fairness to the long conversation that the president and I had, it was cordial and respectful. In the end, we both agreed to disagree and I voiced my extreme sadness that we could not come together in a creative way that would honor the right of the students to participate in their Convocation in the name of “the open space of democracy.” It felt so close. But then the president said, “I have made my decision.”

He invited me to come back after the elections; the date he gave was Nov. 4, 2004. I asked him to send me a letter (which he has promised to do) to state why he has made this decision and why he views me as “threatening” to Florida Gulf Coast University.

I hung up the phone and my whole body was shaking. This unfortunate situation is now in the hands of the students. I feel like I have failed them.

I await their response.

To President Merwin, following our conversation, I wrote:

Dear President Merwin:

Democracy is an insecure landscape and today it feels more so. I am deeply disappointed by your decision to postpone the Convocation at Florida Gulf Coast University. I was looking forward to addressing the students in the spirit of conversation and discussing what engagement within a vibrant democracy means.

The fact that you view my presence as “threatening” to your university because of statements I have made in print regarding President George W. Bush is deeply troubling. If our institutions of higher learning can no longer be counted on as champions and respecters of freedom of speech, then I fear no voice is safe from being silenced in this country. I understand this morning the Board of Governors supported your decision by a vote of 11 to 1, the dissenting vote belonging to the president of the senate, a faculty member, the only trustee not appointed by Governor Jeb Bush. As an American writer, I believe that to deny the students their own Convocation at this point in time, when this is precisely the conversation we are having now as a nation, is not only a breach of contract, but more tragically, a breach in democracy.

I appreciated our conversation yesterday. It was important for me to listen to your concerns. You voiced your discomfort with my “anti-Bush” statements within the pages of my book, The Open Space of Democracy. You feared this would be a direct offense to Governor Jeb Bush, the brother of our president, who appointed the Board of Regents, your own Board of Trustees, and your donors, many who are supporters of the Bush brothers. In the name of “political balance” you made up your mind to postpone the Convocation and all other events associated with it, which also prohibits me from delivering the “Rachel Carson Distinguished Lecture” the following Monday, Oct. 25, on Sanibel Island. You conveyed your sense of responsibility to “advance and protect” your institution and you feared that what I have said in writing is harmful to your university.

When I asked you what words of mine, in particular, had offended you the most, you shared them with me. As we read through the text together (pp. 17-19), it became clear that these words had been taken out of context, that my critique of President George W. Bush was, in fact, a critique of my own political rhetoric. What I was asking of myself was a deeper consideration of my own engagement in the democratic process, “… how might we face the polarity of opinion in our country right now, how we might take opposing views and blend them into some kind of civil dialogue.” Each of us has the opportunity to engage in reflective questioning if we choose to move forward as a responsive citizen. But taking my words out of context and portraying me as “a Bush-basher” misrepresents me as a writer. The integrity of any writer’s work resides in the dignity and imagination of ideas, not in the one-dimensional platitudes of a political campaign.

This is the irony of the situation you and I find ourselves in now. I do not believe either one of us wants to be trapped by ideology. The Open Space of Democracy is a call for conscious dialogue in times of divisive political rhetoric that has no heart.

We have missed a rich opportunity for compassionate understanding and empathy. Censorship betrays the students’ intelligence, individual power of discernment, and their own passionate exploration of ideas as they prepare to vote. I believe your action has stopped the dialogue around Convocation at a time when we need it most. Consequently, the student body of Florida Gulf Coast University is being robbed of the experience of emancipatory education, the gift of being able to participate in critical thinking, meaningful dialogue, and debate, the very process inherent in an open society.

In a letter to writer Umberto Eco regarding the nature of democracy, Carlo Maria Martini, a member of the College of Cardinals at the Vatican, wrote, “The delicate game of democracy provides for a dialectic between opinions and beliefs in the hope that such exchange will expand the collective moral conscience that is the basis of orderly cohabitation.”

The students of Florida Gulf Coast University have a copy of The Open Space of Democracy in hand. Perhaps this is what matters most. It is my sincere hope that the students will create their own terrain of dialogue and dissent, creativity and conversation. Democracy invites us to take risks. It asks that we vacate the comfortable seat of certitude, remain pliable, and act, ultimately, on behalf of the common good. Democracy’s only agenda is that we participate …

I look forward to full participation in this ongoing discussion, President Merwin, and await a future invitation to speak at Florida Gulf Coast University.

You will find my honorarium for $5,000 returned to you with a request that it be given to students at The Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education with the idea that it could be used to create a forum for freedom of speech, whereby this discussion in the name of “the open space of democracy” can continue.

Sincerely,

Terry Tempest Williams