It’s uncomfortably appropriate that, on the day of Karl Rove’s visit to Mary Washington, our campus police attempted to deny students’ their right to freedom of speech. A group of forty-or-so students and community members assembled outside of Dodd Auditorium, prepared to demonstrate. An officer immediately informed us that we would be confined to a designated “free speech zone” in the grass across from the building. The order came from the Assistant Vice President of Security, Susan Knick.
Karl Rove, the “architect” of our current wars in the Middle East, would have approved. During his time as a leading adviser to the Bush administration, he manipulated public opinion and actively supported the repression of free speech. He emphasized the now-defunct threat of nuclear weapons in Iraq and marketed the invasion of Baghdad to the American public. The Bush administration, during that time, also imposed some of the strictest limitations of freedom of speech in American history, often by creating “free speech zones.”
The tactic was used extensively after the invasion of Iraq, targeting anti-war protesters at presidential speaking events. Often, these “free speech zones” were hidden from view and off-limits to journalists and photographers.
At this moment, demonstrators are gathered outside Wall Street and in cities across the country: in Chicago, San Francisco and Boston, exercising their rights to free speech. There have been brutal arrests, though the demonstrators have remained nonviolent. In New York City, police have targeted people carrying cameras. These examples have shown us that freedom of speech depends on what we say, and that our rights will be granted to us only if we demand them.
Mary Washington’s “Policy on Demonstrations, Protests, Marches, Rallies and/or Leaflet Distribution” specifically reserves the right to impose time, place, and manner restrictions on any “activity involving the public display of a group or multiple groups feeling(s).”
The overly broad policy pays lip service to freedom of speech, but denies it in practice. We can demonstrate, in other words, only “at the discretion of University officials.” When free speech is subjected to discretionary restrictions, it ceases to exist. The policy should be rewritten by designating our entire campus, including buildings, as a “free speech zone.”
As students, we are taught to think critically, to challenge injustice and to speak up. The Mary Washington mission statement brags that we are models of “responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society.” Shouldn’t our institution, then, foster these values?
Shouldn’t our campus embrace freedom of speech and assembly? Our administration may feel that “unauthorized” demonstrations violate their policies. But if our entire university is not designated as a “free speech zone,” then it violates the educational mission which those policies claim to uphold.
Peter Hawes is a senior.