UF prepares for Kevorkian visit

Published: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

When Dr. Jack Kevorkian took to the podium at Wayne State University in late November, two University of Florida officials were looking on with interest.

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An undated file photo of Dr. Jack Kevorkian speaking after his release from prison in June.

The Associated Press


FYI: Dr. Jack Kevorkian

Tuesday, 8 p.m., O'Connell Center.Free tickets available at the University Box Office.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for students with Gator 1 ID, 7 p.m. for public.

For more information call (352) 392-1653

"We just wanted to see what kind of reaction he got, and what kind of protest he got," said Lt. Stacy Ettel, a UF Police officer who's been intimately involved in planning security for Kevorkian's appearance at the O'Connell Center on Tuesday.

Kevorkian, an assisted suicide advocate, was released from prison in June after serving eight years of a 10- to 25-year sentence for killing a man with Lou Gehrig's disease. He says he assisted in the deaths of some 130 people, and has drawn the ire of pro-life groups and the praise of euthanasia advocates.

Kevorkian's speech at Wayne State, which took place at noon before a mostly student crowd of only about 200 people, didn't draw any notable protest. But that event, held in Detroit near Kevorkian's home, was really just a dry run for the controversial convicted murderer's first major post-prison speech at UF this week.

"I wanted him to have one small one under his bet before he went to Florida," said Mayer Morganroth, Kevorkian's attorney.

Ettel's 1,000-mile trek to Detroit to see Kevorkian reflects the high level of preparation for an event that's stirring up some anxiety among UF officials.

The Kevorkian appearance, which has drawn strong opposition from right-to-life groups, was postponed in October after the infamous "Don't Tase me bro" affair. UF Police drew scrutiny from some critics after that event, when a rowdy UF student was Tasered by police when he refused to leave a forum held with U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Just weeks after the Kerry speech, the university opened itself up to more criticism when UF students, donning hoods reminiscent Abu Ghraib detainees, stormed the stage unimpeded as former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spoke on campus.

In the wake of these two incidents, UF speeches - once known for free flowing dialogue between the audience and the speaker - have looked quite different. Barriers have been erected in front of the speakers to prevent stage storming, and questions are submitted in advance and chosen at a moderator's discretion to prevent potential disruption.

Beth Waltrip, UF's director of student activities, said organizers have been forced to make the security at UF speaking engagements similar to what one might see at a rock concert.

If security concerns were heightened already after the Kerry and Gonzales speeches, there's additional cause for anxiety as the man dubbed "Dr. Death" prepares for a UF visit. Last week, UF received 1,167 e-mails - mostly form letters that appear to have circulated online - in opposition of the Kevorkian speech. That's on top of about 5,000 petitions UF previously received from a group headed by the brother of the late Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who was removed from a feeding tube in high-profile battle.

Accent, the student-run speakers' bureau that invited Kevorkian, has taken its share of criticism. "I don't think we anticipated the level of response and just hatred," Waltrip said. "I know the Accent chair has been told more than once that he's going to hell, just for booking the program."

Accent, which is funded by student fees, is paying Kevorkian $50,000 for his appearance. The speakers' bureau's stated aim is to bring in guests that will stir up controversy, but Accent also pledges to book people who reflect diverse opinions. In recent years, Accent has welcomed conservative pundit Ann Coulter as well as Michael Moore, the left-wing filmmaker.

Katherine Schinn, president of UF's Pro Life Alliance, says she's extremely upset that her student fees are helping to pay a king's ransom to a suicide advocate and convicted murderer.

"We were told in no uncertain terms that there was nothing we could do in terms of preventing him from coming," said Schinn, who's group plans to protest in a designated area outside the O'Connell Center on Tuesday.

Schinn argues that Kevorkian's message is in conflict with the university's own suicide prevention programs on campus.

"I wonder why if we're so concerned about preventing suicide on campus, which is a valid concern, why would we want to promote pretty much the same thing?"

Steven Blank, chairman of Accent, said he's glad to see the opposition. "People are protesting and bringing out their views in a civil way," he said, "and that's exactly what we want."

Jack Stripling can be reached at 352-374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.

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