Students 'Draw' Attention to Free Speech Rights on Campus
May 12, 2011
by Jaclyn Hall
From California to Texas to Washington, D.C., Free Speech Walls are drawing—literally—attention to free speech rights on campus. Last fall, The Torch followed the College Libertarians at Pepperdine University as they built a Free Speech Wall to celebrate Constitution Day, saw it torn down, and then re-built it with the support of a broad coalition of student groups. Since that event garnered national attention, many other student groups have erected their own Free Speech Walls to teach fellow students about First Amendment rights.
To hold a Free Speech Wall event, organizers build a temporary wall out of cardboard or plywood, or cover a building wall with paper, and provide markers for people to write, draw, or post whatever they like. The Free Speech Wall encourages students to exercise their right to free expression on campus, including anonymous speech. In April, student groups at University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) and American University (AU) in Washington, D.C., decided to host Free Speech Wall events on their campuses.
For Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) at UTSA, the Free Speech Wall they put up on April 11 provided a visual remedy for the lack of knowledge about First Amendment rights they discovered among their peers, and even professors. As Andrew Kaluza, a group member who chronicled the event, remarked:
We found many students, professors, and faculty did not know what was considered free speech. "Countless times people asked if they were allowed to write the F word," noted Miriam Volosen, a freshman YAL member. We were shocked at the level of ignorance on the subject. Students at our school were so confused on what words were allowed that they would question their most basic right.
Although no one tried to tear down their wall, the group did face one incident of threatened censorship:
[W]e had an encounter with a campus police officer who told us the quote "SGA = SLUTS" was not allowed on the wall and that it was defamatory. We politely informed him that students are entitled to such speech, and we will respectfully refuse to take it down. He threatened us that he would come back with more force, but the officer left and never returned. Maybe he had time to study up on free speech and reconsider his threat.
But most of the time students reacted to comments on the wall with more speech, picking up a marker of their own and responding in kind.
Unfortunately, the Free Speech Wall at UTSA almost didn't happen. YAL at UTSA faced considerable challenges simply getting their event approved (see the full story on Students For Liberty's blog). They were not allowed to hang paper on any campus building's wall, and the free-standing structure they designed instead was required to withstand "hurricane force winds" before the temporary display would be approved.
The delays caused the planned event date to be pushed back several times, and the wall was eventually stationed inside a building, in a less-populated area of campus. Despite these setbacks, the event clearly succeeded in promoting discussion about free speech on campus.
Fortunately, American University Students For Liberty (AUSFL) did not face the same bureaucratic obstacles as YAL at UTSA, and their Free Speech Wall was also a smashing success. As part of a "Freedom Fair" celebration on April 20, the group put up a display to give their peers an opportunity to express their views.
FIRE is excited to see students educating their peers about free speech on campus and demanding that their colleges respect their rights and those of their fellow students. We are even more thrilled that, when arguing for the Free Speech Wall at UTSA, an audience member from a FIRE Speakers Bureau event quoted one of our own! Again, from Andrew Kaluza:
Jason Hensley, our YAL chapter president ... recounted a quote from Adam Kissel of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE): "If college kids are not offended on a daily basis walking through campus, something is wrong." Jason goes on to say: "College should be the hub for intriguing ideas, offensive or not, and we definitely have a lack of controversy here. We'll cut through the massive bureaucracy and build a wall where students can come express themselves."
We couldn't agree more. Bravo to the YAL at UTSA and AUSFL members for all their hard and important work!