Is Free Speech Created Equal?

Today was the third time this year that anti-abortion protesters have been invited to host demonstrations in my university. This may seem an unlikely subject for a dance blog, and for those of you who want to skip this post we will be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon, I promise. But this blog is my professional platform, and the university is my professional home; my colleagues, and my students are being affected. As a dancer I deal with bodies, and there are (as one of my professors would put it) “bodies on the line.”

The group in question is Created Equal, an organisation that sends protestors, literature, graphic displays and giant TV screens to universities and towns across the United States. They are not a university group; they are a collection of people dedicated to using shock tactics to spread a nationwide political agenda. The first time I saw them on campus I tried to get them removed by security, only to find that they had full permission to be present, rationalised as “free speech.”

Unfortunately, the terms of free speech do not quite apply here: the university requires external organisations to get permission to use the grounds, which means that somewhere in the administrative chain someone has looked at what this group stands for, decided it seems like a good idea, and offered them university space to continue their work. I believe this also makes the university complicit (at least tacitly) in the tactics used by Created Equal to do that work, which include harassment, invasion of privacy, and causing deep fear and anguish among the student and faculty populations.

I will clarify now: this post is not for me to argue my position on abortion. Instead I want to state my heartfelt objection to the way one particular stance has been promoted in university space, and with university backing.

To begin with, Created Equal’s protests are in the centre of campus grounds, and obstruct the majority of students on their way to and from class, home, and other resources. This means that when walking across campus you have no choice but to see the violent, bloody images on signs and screens, which are a regular feature of these demonstrations. You must pass through a scowling army of volunteers who try and interview you – some of the volunteers are women, some men, and some just teenage boys.

I won’t belabour the nauseous horror induced by that particular gauntlet, but suffice to say that it’s not something anyone should have walk through just to get to class.

Secondly, Created Equal volunteers are all equipped with cameras on body harnesses. I don’t know if these are video or still, but I do know that they record images of students without their consent, and threaten anyone who objects to their presence with a warning that those images will be spread around. A superbly brave collection of students who staged a counter-protest during the first visit, found that exercising their – actual – right to free speech (students may use campus grounds without applying for permission) resulted in harassment from which they were not protected. One student was asked if she would “drown a two year-old,” and said that Created Equal seemed determined to provoke them into an emotional reaction.

It’s also worth noting that Created Equal did not target the university’s own counselling staff, who came down in their own free time when notified of what was going on. Created Equal does not want to engage in debate, or convince others of their position with logic – their primary methods are bullying and intimidation, backed up by a known history of violence towards those who disagree with their stance.

When students first protested the presence of Created Equal on campus, they were promised a number of protections: a warning that Created Equal would be on campus, and privacy corridors for getting to class. Neither of those measures were in place at any of this year’s protests. If the university will not stop this group from coming it should, at the very least, allow students to avoid them.

But why does the university continue to allow them to come? This group deliberately sets out to horrify/intimidate/traumatise students, photographs or films them without permission, and threatens those who try to stand up to them. They spread information that is demonstrably untrue, and have no official representation inside the student body.

My final consideration is that this university has a young population, but nevertheless it is a population who may already have had to make difficult choices about their lives and bodies, or may have to make those choices in future. The goal of an educational establishment should be to serve that population with the best information available for its wellbeing, and the university should therefore be making sure that it promotes the best knowledge available, in an atmosphere where students can think, discuss, and use that knowledge without fear.

I have prioritised logic over feeling in writing this post, because I hope that will help those who do not empathise with my feelings at least understand my argument. Nevertheless I am shocked and appalled at what I had to walk through today. I have deep gratitude for those who have attempted to mitigate the impact of this unwanted incursion into our space. I feel betrayal at how the university is shielding Created Equal behind a tenuous justification of free speech, but turning its back on the students it should be educating and keeping safe.

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