Last week, a professor at Sam Houston State University took a box cutter and cut out a message criticizing Obama from a Free Speech Wall, incarnating the very problem the wall was trying to address: freedom of speech is literally under attack on campus.
The story begins with my campus organization, the SHSU Lovers of Liberty. Last semester, we decided to create a Free Speech Wall on campus to raise awareness of the importance of the First Amendment. When the university announced that it was changing its speech code to further restrict freedom of expression at Sam Houston, we decided to make it bigger. My friend Brian Howard, vice president of the Bearkat Democrats, heard about our plans and asked if his organization could get involved. This inspired me to invite the Democratic Socialists and College Republicans to join in on our event as well. To make the event even more meaningful, we decided to include a petition against the new university policy for students to sign at the event.
Once all four organizations were committed to the event, we began to move forward. After being told by the university’s Student Activities office that we could not host the event outside unless the wall was under four feet tall, I made a trip to the another building on campus that agreed to let us use the atrium. I immediately reserved the room in under five minutes, a nice surprise when dealing with university bureaucracy. My dad and I spent the whole weekend constructing the wall. The result was a twenty-four foot free speech canvas that could be put together and taken apart easily and used multiple times. For the next three days, all the organizations worked together to make sure the event was successful. I walked the campus hanging lolcat posters to promote the event with both chairs of the Democratic Socialists at my side.
The big day of the event came and we were all excited to see the results of our hard work. By 8:30 in the morning, we were ready to go. As sleepy students started to pile into the building, they seemed a little perplexed as to what was going on. I am not sure if the confusion was the result of the early hour or the fact that a free speech wall had not been constructed on campus in seventeen years, and thus no one knew what it was. As we continuously called students over to the wall and told them to write whatever they wanted, the enthusiasm started to build. By 9:40 the wall was getting crowded. By 11, the front was nearly full. So we added a back!
The most fantastic thing about this wall to me wasn’t the actual words being written or the petition being signed, but rather seeing fellow students realize that they could exercise their freedom of speech. We were asked several times “I can write anything?” It was an amazing feeling to see the enthusiasm when you told them, “Yes.” Someone even wrote on the wall, “This is the best thing I’ve ever seen at this raggedy school.”
Around noon, we had already considered the event to be a success. We had no complaints up until that point, everyone seemed to be really enjoying the wall, and we were getting a good number of signatures on the petition. Not bad for a group’s first big event. Suddenly, everything changed within a matter of seconds.
A passing math professor got a look at the backside of the wall, where the words “Fuck Obama” were written in huge purple letters. He became angry very fast and someone pointed me out as the event organizer. The professor started by ordering me to take down the “Fuck Obama” from the wall. He said, among other things, that he had not voted for him, but he was the president and had to be respected. I then proceeded to explain to him that it was a Free Speech Wall and if I controlled the content then it would no longer be free. I told him that I had received university approval for the event, and he would have to take it up with someone else. He then informed me that he would and left. He came back a few minutes later with the administrator in the dean’s office that approved the wall to show her what was on it. In the course of conversing with the administrator, the professor realized she was not going to order us to remove the message. In response, he announced that he would just go get his box cutter and remove the offending words himself.
The administrator quickly left. Slightly shocked, I told everyone to continue and had a member of our group contact our faculty advisor. The professor swiftly returned with a box cutter as promised. He announced to the some 50 students standing around that he was now going to exercise his freedom of speech by removing the statement that offended him. We attempted to talk him out of it by telling him he could draw a line through it or write a refutation, but he ignored us and proceeded to cut out the “Fuck.” He then left to jeers from several students in the area, taking the cut out with him. I told everyone it was fine and we would just recover that section. Students then wrote “Still Fuck Obama” and “Fuck Box Cutters.”
Our faculty advisor arrived a few minutes later and called the dean. The dean instructed us to call the University Police Department because the professor had brandished a potential weapon. When the two officers arrived they interviewed us about the incident and then went to speak with the professor. They returned not too long after, and, to our surprise, presented us with three options: 1. We could cover up the F-words (which numbered at about 100), 2. We could put up new paper and not let anyone write the F-word, or 3. We could take the wall down. When we asked why we had to cover it up or take it down the police said it was a misdemeanor to use vulgar language that offended someone. According to the officer,our freedom of speech was fine until someone became offended. We decided to take the wall down because there was no point in having a free speech wall if it was going to be censored.
It is really hard to put a name on the emotions I felt that day. To see something that had brought libertarians, socialists, Democrats, and Republicans together and had raised such enthusiasm among the student body completely shut down because one professor got mad seemed completely unjust. A university is supposed to be a place where a free flow of ideas is ever present. It should encourage students to stretch their minds and push the envelope. A university that puts a restriction on the flow of knowledge seems to be acting against its purpose.
This unfortunate incident really highlights why it is important to host these types of events in the first place. Many students at Sam Houston State were completely unaware of what free speech meant. Like many others, students on our campus are apathetic, which is a big challenge to all of our political organizations. But we were highlighting that liberty is something we can use to bring everyone together. As the SHU Lovers of Liberty were “radical” or “those crazy libertarians,” but rather as the organizers of a united coalition defending free speech. Indeed, I encourage all liberty groups to collaborate with other political clubs on campus as often as possible. Not only does it make your events bigger, it helps maintain friendly relationships. Life is a lot easier on campus if you are not engaged in a constant flyer war with the socialists.
Watching our hard work ripped apart within a matter of minutes could have completely disheartened us. But it had the opposite effect. After class on Friday, the leadership of the four clubs met on campus to discuss a way to host another free speech wall event. I like to call us, “Sam’s Own Tyranny Response Team.” This is not the end. It is only the beginning.
As a liberty group it is important to be the forefront of fighting for student rights on campus. There really is so much opportunity out there, even when dealing with the most basic rights. Simple things like free speech really can cause a stir, as we found out at Sam, and are almost universally attractive. Even though what happened at our wall was unfortunate, we could not have planned a better way to draw awareness to the issue. We got people talking about free speech and the social media policy. There was even a student on campus the next day holding a sign that asked “Free Speech?” I stopped by twice that day to hear the lively discussion taking place. I feel confident in saying we have won half the battle.
Most importantly, the incident last Thursday reminded me why we are all fighting for liberty in the first place. Too often as students we get fired up by the excitement of the fight alone. I know some who are itching for a controversy like this to occur so they can be in the spotlight. While they do present an opportunity for liberty groups to raise awareness of important issues and should be taken advantage of, incidents like this one are the very things we are working to stop from happening in the first place. It is not a good feeling to watch the free expression of your fellow students taken away because someone disagrees with their message. It is a violation of their rights, and a threat to the rights of everyone else at our university.
But it did happen to us, and we are not taking it lightly. We will stand up for the rights of all students at Sam Houston State to speak their minds, to criticize their elected officials, and to engage in the debate and discourse that an institution of higher education deserves. Thank you to Students For Liberty and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for supporting us throughout these events. You will be hearing from me again as we keep up the fight for free speech.