Vandals Trample Upon Students’ Rights at Missouri State—Literally
October 24, 2008
FIRE has received some troubling news from Missouri State University. Earlier this month, a student group at MSU had a campus display vandalized. The group, Bears for Life, sought to draw attention to their pro-life stance by setting up four thousand popsicle-stick crosses on a campus lawn. While the group's intention may have been to fuel a campus discussion about abortion, they have instead ignited a broader conversation about the campus' ability to tolerate controversial opinions. Watch a video of the incident below:
According to an article in The Standard, MSU's student newspaper, members of the Bears for Life revisited their exhibit the night after its creation to discover that students were purposefully stepping on and rolling over the crosses. One delinquent even resorted to riding his bike through the display, breaking as many of the tiny crosses as possible. When asked why they were destroying the exhibit, one woman in the group said, "Because we can." Much of this vandalism was filmed and posted online. Just as troubling, members of Bears for Life recognized several of the vandals a few days later on campus and confronted them about the destruction of their display. In a video the group made of the encounter, someone from the pro-life group asks a young woman why she had stepped on the crosses, to which she replies, "Because I don't believe in what you stand for." She goes on to state, "I feel like I have the right to walk across campus without seeing that."
Obviously this young woman and her friends do not agree with the opinions of the pro-life students. However, rather than simply engage in debate or protest, these students attempted to quash any opposition. Destroying the expressive work of others is not an extension of anyone's "rights" but instead displays the sort of brutishness and ignorance more fitting for a dictatorship than the free marketplace of ideas.
Sadly, FIRE has seen examples of brazen censorship directed towards anti-abortion exhibits before. In 2006, FIRE reported on the case of Professor Sally Jacobsen, who encouraged her students at Northern Kentucky University to dismantle a pro-life display and throw the crosses in the trash. When questioned about her involvement, she stated, "Any violence perpetrated against that silly display was minor compared to how I felt when I saw it. Some of my students felt the same way, just outraged." As Greg wrote at the time, "I am so tired of college administrators, faculty, and students excusing their attempts to silence opinions they dislike or disagree with by treating their censorship as a necessary part of a decent university society. This turns the ideal of individual freedom on its head and transmogrifies it into a mandate for enforced conformity."
Similarly, Torch readers may remember Robert's blog this spring about the YouTube video of Roderick King, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and member of the student government, tearing up crosses for a pro-life display while angrily shouting "Since [abortion] is a right, you don't have the right to challenge it." As Robert correctly pointed out, nothing could be further from the truth. "Simply put, tearing down someone else's display is not expression—it's vandalism. Students who engage in such activities can and should be punished, as the marketplace of ideas cannot survive when those opposed to an idea or expressive act are allowed to destroy all traces of it."
If the MSU administration does not take a stand against this malicious vandalism, they will be sending a clear signal to their students that these actions are tolerated on campus. In effect, MSU will be promoting a "heckler's veto" on its campus by giving the least tolerant members of the college community the power to control the flow of discourse. This would be a travesty for a university which has stated that "community, civility, and the search for knowledge and truth are the essence of University Life" and that all student scholars are expected to "[treat] all persons with civility, while understanding that tolerating an idea is not the same as supporting it."
Editorials have already appeared in The Standard for and against the censorship. One student, defending the student vandals, wrote that it was acceptable to destroy the group's exhibit once their reservation of the college lawn ended. Regardless of the fact that media reports place the vandalism several hours before the expiration of the group's reservation, I am deeply troubled by this bizarre Cinderella-esque invocation of a curfew on individual rights. Unlike that ill-fated carriage, those crosses didn't magically change shape and become trash which could be broken and discarded.
In the comments sections of the various articles, there have been several other defenses of these vandals' actions including that Bears for Life disseminated incorrect or misleading data about abortion and that similar acts of disruption have taken place at liberal student events. Neither of these excuses can justify this most recent bout of intolerance. The maxim that two wrongs do not make a right may be a cliché but isn't any less true. In fact, the airing of similar episodes of intolerance just makes me all the more concerned about the state of free speech at MSU.
FIRE will continue to monitor this situation. We fully expect that the MSU administration will recognize its obligation to not sit idly by while the rights of its students are literally trampled upon.