By LAURA TAYLOR
Free speech on college campuses should be allowed to the extent that given each situation, respect for other people’s opinions, race, religion, ethnicity, heritage, and safety remains the priority. At the University of Mary Washington, free speech is practiced in varying ways but often times, it goes too far and only demonstrates for the values that the university believes in.
On February 18, a white supremacy group called the Patriot Front placed stickers with messages such as “America First” and “American is Dead, Long Live America: Fight for Rebirth” around campus, sparking reactions from students and from the university’s president, Troy Paino.
President Paino’s reaction came in form of a statement in a video shortly after the initial notification of the Patriot Front’s actions on campus.
“Yes, we believe in the First Amendment: freedom of expression, freedom of inquiry; but we also believe in creating a supportive, caring and safe environment for our students,” said Paino. “I want to encourage you to look for opportunities in the coming days and weeks for us to come together as a community, because at Mary Washington, we are stronger when we are united and refuse to be divided.”
While this group has their own ideas and opinions of what it is to be American, the group is a white supremacist group, and there needs to be recognition that the campus in which they chose to spread their message opposes actions which jeopardize the “supportive, caring and safe environment” that the university works to create, and their messages indeed jeopardize this environment.
The University of Mary Washington Student Government released a statement via email about maintaining a respectful and inclusive environment on campus. In the statement, they draw attention to the “several incidents regarding the Spirit Rock recently including but not limited to instances of the Spirit Rock being defaced with spray paint.”
Opposing groups on campus have been crossing out each other’s messages on the rock in order to draw attention to their own political or philosophical agendas. This has sparked controversy by offending passerbys.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, has been working to protect the educational environment by helping to establish the line to determine when free speech has turned into pure hate speech.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, schools including American universities and colleges foster the growth and development of unique ideas that students create while also supporting the competition of those ideas in a just and fair environment. Free speech becomes hate speech when there is a safety concern for the groups that are targeted, or aren’t targeting, in certain speech.
In order to protect the inclusive, safe, and respectful environment that UMW is working to create, remembering to respect the opposition and agreeing to disagree will help develop the university as a united but diverse campus rather than a campus set in prejudice and exclusion.
Maintaining respect on a college campus allows for the fostering of competitive ideas while also establishing the trust on campus that one’s own safety won’t become jeopardized because of opposing ideas that arise amongst those people on or off the campus.