The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Protecting Protesters

3 min read


Like many students at UMW, I found the anti-abortion demonstrations that took place on Oct. 18 to be unconvincing, poorly executed, and generally ineffective.
There was little intellectual discussion of the issue being addressed, the signs being displayed could be considered offensive, and the protests had little hope of impacting anyone’s beliefs.
That said, it is essential to understand the importance of free speech, particularly on a college campus.
While some students believed that the protests were annoying but tolerable, it seemed that others were so outraged that they believed that the protesters did not have a right to be on campus at all.
I personally was not present for the entire duration of the demonstration, but I believe that even if the demonstrators began to behave inappropriately calling people “Nazis,” according to the Bullet’s Oct. 25 article, it is crucial that we not discount the rights of individuals to express their beliefs on campus.
I do not mean to condone any inappropriate behavior of the protesters, but rather to emphasize that it is crucial that we as students retain the moral high ground by tolerating the exercise of free speech.
Of course, it would be hypocritical to state that those who discount the rights of others to speak freely are completely out of line, since they too are simply exercising their rights to express their opinions. However, like anyone else with  conviction, I am expressing mine.
It is inappropriate and immature to criticize anything but the content of the expression of an opinion.  In other words, complaining about the existence of a demonstration is not an appropriate criticism of it.
Rather, the proper response to the expression of beliefs you don’t agree with is either to ignore them, or to offer a mature counter-argument to their beliefs.  It may be appropriate to criticize inappropriate or offensive tactics they used, but implying that they should not be permitted to demonstrate peacefully is wrong.
The protesters last Thursday in no way disrupted the educational process. It is somewhat disturbing to find the extent to which people often do not understand the significance of this most basic of American rights.  I seem to remember that the Bullet itself published an editorial last year advising students to “shut it” regarding some situation that they felt was being over-discussed by many students.
Again, even opponents of free speech have the right to express their discontent, but we should all keep in mind that our first amendment rights ought not to be taken for granted.
Certainly, Mary Washington is in not nearly as bad a state as some other campuses.  This past September, 21-year-old Andrew Meyer at the University of Florida was tasered for repeatedly asking Senator John Kerry heated  questions about his run for president after being asked to step away from the microphone.  Meyer was dragged away by police and shocked with a taser even after he was under control.
In a way, that situation bears similarities to the abortion protest at our school; the college student was expressing himself in a way many found to be inappropriate, and behaved in what may have been an immature manner.  But I believe and hope that few students at our school would have had as strong a response to Meyer’s behavior, or to our own abortion protesters, as the University of Florida’s campus police did.
When observing someone who acts brashly in expressing a particular belief, it’s important to ask ourselves how we would react if we agreed with their position.
When I read in the news about journalists and government employees in modern-day Russia being shot or poisoned for making anti-government statements, I cannot help but have a little gratitude for the rights of the abortion demonstrators here.
I was not convinced by them, and found myself more amused than anything at their inability to protest effectively, but I am ultimately glad that they were able to protest at our school, even if I found it ridiculous.