YAL at UTSA hosts Free Speech Wall Week
Two weeks ago, my Young Americans for Liberty chapter at the University of Texas at San Antonio hosted a Free Speech Wall on campus. The chapter decided we would end the semester on an issue students would find popular. We don’t always get the chance to support the popular ideas, so we jumped at the opportunity.
The Free Speech Wall Week at UT-San Antonio rocked! The student body gave us an overwhelmingly positive response and drawing in very large crowds. We were definitely popular in the eyes of our fellow students. By noon each day, the construction paper we posted nearly filled up with comments and pictures; by the next day, the wall would be completely full.
While resupplying markers, Brennan Harmon paused to call out to a group of students walking by, “Come write on the free speech wall; voice what’s on your mind!” to which a reply came, “I love this. This is amazing!” Individuals would come over to the wall and look over all the comments. Eventually, something would strike their attention and they’d grab a marker to write a retort.
The situation tensed when we 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.
Every morning Christian Burns would put new construction paper over the previous day’s paper. “Exercise your rights to free speech even if it offends me,” Christian said as he was talking to an intrigued passerby. He then went on to reiterate the classic quote: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
On Wednesday, April 13th, an individual came up and posted a picture of the religious figure Jesus flipping his middle finger along with many more offensive pictures to other religions. One of the photos posted was of the famous Danish Jyllands-Posten Muhammad drawing that caused riots and shootings in response to its publication. This is one example of how free speech has gone from being offensive or upsetting to potentially dangerous. Brennan Harmon, another YAL member, said: “For the most part, this wall has been relatively tame. No one has called for others to commit immediate acts of violence. The pressure from societal peers holds individuals accountable to being more politically correct, not some governmental ban on speech. How often does someone post up pictures of Muhammad? The person who put up those pictures knew the risks and chose to post them anyways.”
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. Another freshman YAL member, Michael Goldstein, explained to a student questioning him what free speech is allowed: “Free speech is rooted in property rights and your freedom to use your property as you see fit, in this case to express a point of view. This wall, these markers, and this paper are our property, and we have chosen to allow the student body to use them to write messages, draw pictures, etc., of absolutely any content, given it does not incite immediate violence. Every point of view has a right to exist, and we want students to have a place to express them, whether we agree with the particular point or not.”
Our YAL chapter has gained a great deal of respect from other political organizations such as Legalize It!, GLBTQ, and Students for Right to Life. Student Government Association gave us a personal acknowledgement during their meeting for hosting such a successful event.
The wall has also proven to be a great social builder with the Young Democrats and College Republicans on campus. Birk Wilikison, founder and president of the Young Democrats at UTSA, comments: “While there were many anti-democratic messages displayed on the wall and I, personally, found some of the messages disturbing, this event has been a huge success, and I respect and consider YAL as friends of ours.” He went on to say with a smile and an arm around one of our freshman members (Michael Goldstein): “I appreciate YAL’s effort to promote free speech, as there is not a right dearer and more unalienable to the American people than the right to express their mind. But, they [YAL] are also our enemies ideologically. As the saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Now that we are both, I feel like we’re getting uncomfortably close.”
Overall, we brought awareness to the free speech issue in both an informative and diplomatic fashion. YAL Vice President, Autumn Lansford, said: “I feel like we’ve bonded with the student body, and I recommend other liberty chapters do the same at their school. Free speech is a popular issue, especially on college campuses.”
Though we faced many problems with the school, we were able to make the event a success. We can’t wait to do it again next year as well as let other liberty chapters in the area borrow the wall. This wall can help build the Texas liberty movement at more campuses than just ours.
This event was funded by a Protest Grant from Students For Liberty. If you are interested in hosting a similar event you can request up to $500 here.
Check out Part II of the post tomorrow where we describe how we navigated the campus bureaucracy to make this happen.