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A Culture Clash On Campus

Are students crusading against “hate speech” or their own free expression?

 

For as long as I have been at Kennesaw State University, it has been an annual tradition: a couple of weeks after the fall semester begins, a group of evangelist preachers would come to campus and yell inflammatory things at students, who, in return, would yell inflammatory things back at the visiting ministers. The preachers would hold up signs saying that the “secular humanists” would eventually serve as Satan’s kindling lest they changed their un-Christianly ways, and student representatives from the gay rights and skeptics clubs would hold up poster boards denouncing the preachers for being homophobic, misogynistic and culturally ignorant.

Like the Yankees and Red Sox perennially chasing the A.L. East pennant come September, it was a rivalry that pretty much signified the end of summer; it just seemed as if such emotionally-charged civil enmity was a prerequisite for the autumn even beginning.

It wasn’t until this year, however, that I realized something very poignant about the occurrence. For all of the rabblerousing about the preachers being “hatemongering bigots,” it’s ultimately the students that are causing the most harm to civility here. To expound upon why this is the case, a brief history lesson is in order.

The “street preachers,” as the KSU student body regularly refers to them, have been showing up on campus for the better part of a decade now. When they first started showing up, the “designated” free-speech zone of the university was the campus green, which is surrounded by about four or five buildings. Now, the mere existence of a “designated free-speech zone” is pretty darn Orwellian in and of itself, but just wait...it gets even better.

A few years ago, the KSU administration decided to “relocate” the designated free speech zone from the campus green to an extremely small spot outside the Social Sciences Building, which is pretty much the most “remote” location on campus. Although there was never an “official” reason given to the student body as to why the call was made, I think it’s pretty easy to connect-the-dots here: odds are, so as to not offend anyone, the “free speech zone” was moved to a zone with a lot less pedestrian traffic.

And so, the street preachers kept on preaching the gospel according to, well, themselves, I suppose, and the student body kept calling them every name in the book. As heated as the debates may have gotten, however, I do not think that there was ever an incident of the verbal boxing turning into physical hostility. As controversial as the “clashes” may have been, the meetings were, by and large, quite civil events; the preachers utilized their First Amendment rights to free expression, and the students fired back with theirs. That is, until the accusations of hate speech began.

A lot of people on campus didn’t like what the preachers were saying. Actually, I think pretty much everybody on campus didn’t like what the preachers were saying, for that matter. However, a sizable number of students took it a step further and started saying that those preachers didn’t “deserve” the right to express themselves because their speech was critical and condemnatory of certain people. Their assumption was that speech had the ability to emotionally harm, and as such, there should be restrictions on what can legally be said in a public venue.

A few weeks ago, I saw a gaggle of students encircling the street preachers, holding up signs that read “Make KSU a Hate-Free Campus.” Apparently, their campaign was pretty successful, since the preachers ended up getting booted off campus by a technicality just a few hours later. The activist students had won, but perhaps, unbeknownst to themselves, at the cost of their own civic freedom.

The First Amendment isn’t designed to protect the status quo, it’s designed to protect the most unpopular of opinions. Simply put, any regulation against that free expression is detrimental to the population as a whole, and pushing for policies against “hate speech” is basically an invite to quell “free speech” in all of its incarnations.

The kind of “clashes” we had on campus between the preachers and the students weren’t displays of mass incivility. In fact, I’ll argue that such “clashes” were indeed the personification of “civil debate.” One side verbally made their case, while the other side verbally made theirs. Nobody got punched, nobody got shot, and certainly, nobody got killed. In a lot of societies, civil debate of the matter doesn’t end with yelling, it ends with suicide bombings. Perhaps blinded by their own short-sightedness, a lot of students on campus tend to forget just how free our culture truly is.

Sadly, a lot of people on campus don’t want that “truly free” culture, however. Today, it’s “hate speech,” and tomorrow, it’s “unpopular speech,” or “passionate speech,” or “inappropriate speech.” The precedent the kids at KSU are attempting to set is no doubt a most dangerous and misguided one: at the end of the day, it’s not “hate” that they’re attempting to remove from campus, but their own rights to free expression.

 

 

Garett Paul Brackett September 28, 2011 at 03:10 AM
A very well written article with truth written all over it. We claim we are a tolerant nation yet we try to shut those up who have opinions drastically different from our own. It is nice to see that some people still understand the true meaning of free speech.
Ed Bonza September 28, 2011 at 02:32 PM
James, solid commentary and I agree with you wholeheartedly. It seems too many students are willing to trade a little freedom for a little comfort. A “designated free speech zone” is a faulty solution – isn’t the entire institution a free speech zone? KSU has the no-win responsibility of balancing visitors’ right to free speech on one side, and students’ right to get the education they’ve paid for. However the location was moved from the Campus Green, not for any devious reason, but because the Green is a reservable location. Students may reserve the Green for events, games and programs, and it was felt that students should have first “dibbs” on the area. The current location is not remote; 11,150 students attend classes in the two buildings bordering the speech area on Mondays & Wednesdays alone. Also, the assembly was not cut short due to the counter-protest or a technicality. You yourself know how quickly the emotions, language, and possibly actions escalate and one of preachers had an infant within the area. While they were escorted off campus, Rev. Baxter and his fellow preachers (Southeast Open Air Preachers Association) have already been back this month and have reserved the area for three consecutive days in October. I admit that coordinating this area and visits is not my favorite job responsibility. But like you, I feel that the “civil debate” you describe, even when not so civil, is worth fighting for.
Josh Pate September 29, 2011 at 06:55 PM
I have always believed that what Rev. Baxter and the SOAPA said were derogatory and incendiary, with the soul purpose of offending students that have paid good money to be at this university. For that reason, I have considered what they say, "hate speech" since the very first time I stopped and listened to them. Personally, I was happy to see them leave, but not for the reason of restricting free speech, or censorship. The new designated free-speech area, like Bonza said, is so close to many many students taking classes in the Math building or the Social Sciences and I have heard protests from students that were taking tests, but distracted because of incessant shouting from the preachers. They are simply obstructive. They are intrusive to our learning and it offends me that the University allows them to distract the students that go deep into debt to be there for the sake of knowledge. They kill the scholarly atmosphere on campus. They ruin people's days. They should not be on campus.
Joe Bozeman September 29, 2011 at 07:04 PM
"A Free Speech Zone", what a bunch of malarkey!! When that place was called "Kennesaw College", I believe education was the top priority. Now that it has acquired the name of "Kennesaw State University", it is my opinion that it has become a place of political correctness and could be named " The Georgia Institute of Liberalism"
Josh Pate September 29, 2011 at 07:11 PM
I would very much like to hear the evidence for your claim, Mr. Bozeman. For as it stands right now, there is no warrant in your argument.
Joe Bozeman September 29, 2011 at 07:52 PM
Josh, As I stated, this is only my opinion, which I am entitled to. I personally believe that it is supposed to be an institution of learning. I do not believe that these preachers should have even been on campus. To have a free speech zone is only inviting confrontation. When I was in college, I was there to learn. I studied political science as well as other subjects. Then when I went out in the real world, I applied what I had learned there. I was fortunate enough to go to a college that was very conservative, it was then a real military college. It was called "North Georgia College", now it has been renamed " North Georgia College and State University, The Senior Military College of Georgia". I am not pleased with my old school either. I am considered by most college students today as an old relic from the past. That is fine with me. I wish the students of today could have lived in my college days. I believe you would have been much happier than the atmosphere that you attend college in today.
Josh Pate September 29, 2011 at 08:42 PM
Indeed I accept your opinion as valid, but I disagree that a first-amendment area invites trouble. A university is a place for voices to be heard and claims to be made, so it makes sense that the university would open up their forums to the public. These students here today are here to open their minds, not to be told what to learn or how they should learn it. There is open debate for any subject on any campus, but it should undoubtedly occur in a scholarly and respectful manner. As the adage goes, Knowledge is Power, thus the ability to spread knowledge is vital. Defining terms on how to present this knowledge as in the form of a first-amendment area by KSU is not necessarily a bad decision or inherently liberal one. The fact that some colleges have more "conservative" ideologies does not, in my opinion, make one better than the other, as well. The facilitation of knowledge comes in all forms and should be respected, not berated as left leaning or right. The pursuit of knowledge is the common goal and there is no wrong way to go about it.
Joe Bozeman September 29, 2011 at 09:16 PM
Josh, You seem to an open minded young man. Probably more open minded than I am. Being open minded is a great thing, but stick by your beliefs. Don't ever compromise because of political correctness. Be an individual. Going to a military college did not give me much freedom of speech. Learn all you can and don't stop learning when you leave KSU. I found what I learned in college was not the real world, but it's the best place to be from age 18 to 21. I made a talk at KSU several years ago about owning a small business. I was impressed with the business school, but I am not impressed with ANY school of journalism. Good luck, and I hope you achieve your goals in life. Sincerely Yours, Joe Bozeman
Joe Bozeman September 30, 2011 at 03:43 PM
Josh, Back to my opinion that KSU could be renamed the Georgia Institute of Liberalism, I will submit two examples of recent speakers there that were reported in Kennesaw Patch. #1 Some guy named Asante #2 Ex Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. More conservative speakers might have spoken there, but I cannot find where it was reported in Patch. I remember when Newt Gingrich taught a class at Kennesaw. I also remember years ago when a non credit course was offered called "United States Foreign Relations" taught by Ex Secretary of State Dean Rusk. I am sure that the school has had some conservative speakers there recently, but I am not aware of who they are. I would appreciate you and maybe James to fill me in. Joe Bozeman

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