Conservative group sends free speech beach ball to the Diag
Issues of free speech on the University of Michigan’s campus this year haven’t exactly been fun and games, but an outside conservative group sought to change that Monday afternoon.
Students played with and scribbled on a huge beach ball labeled “Free Speech” on the Diag, open to anyone and everyone who wanted to share their thoughts and write something on the ball.
Nathan Williamson, one of the facilitators of the event and a Field Representative at the Leadership Institute, an institute intending to provide training for conservative activists, has done this activity at universities all around Michigan in an effort to promote free speech on college campuses.
“It’s a beach ball we roll around campus to promote free speech, and we let anybody write whatever they want to on it as a practice of the First Amendment,” Williamson said.
In recent months, the line between free speech and hate speech has been heavily debated by University students and administration. In response to a speech by Charles Murray, a controversial social scientist who promotes a since-debunked relationship between race and IQ, last October, protests were organized, claiming his ideas were discriminatory and did not qualify as free speech. With the impending decision by the University as to whether or not white supremacist Richard Spencer will be given a date and place to speak on campus assuming the safety of students can be assured, the University has organized events during the winter semester to examine what free speech means on campus.
Williamson said he brought the beach ball to the University because of FIRE, — Foundation for Individual Rights and Education — a free speech watchdog organization that looks at college campuses around the country and rates their free speech policies.
FIRE rates “green light schools” are campuses it views as friendly to friend speech, while red light schools are the worst. FIRE rated the University as a red light institution.
“U-M has red light policies that basically show that the school is less open to free speech,” Williamson said. “So the purpose of this specifically is to just promote a culture of free speech here on campus.”
FIRE has deemed some of the University’s policies on hate speech, bias-related incidents and sexual harassment to be examples of red light policies that restrict students’ free speech.
Williamson had been to many campuses around the state of Michigan, and said that he hadn’t been at the University’s campus long enough to really tell how the policies were enforced. However, regardless of how they are enforced, Williamson said the way that the policies are written are not necessarily welcoming to free speech.
In addition to the Leadership Institute’s display at various universities, other conservative advocacy groups such as Turning Point USA have been increasing their presence in higher education. Last year, a website by Turning Point called Professor Watchlist identified about 150 professors around the country as discriminating against conservative students.
Williamson said at times, the beach ball and other events he has organized have been met with protesters and even police interference. In this specific display, the ball was met with curious looks and some questions, but no one seemed particularly threatened by it.
Many students stopped to write on the ball. While some students wrote song lyrics or drew pictures, others took a more political route with their writing. One side of the ball had “Palestine” written with a heart under it, and the other had “G-d Bless Israel.” There was one comment that read “speech isn’t free,” and some that were more vulgar; for example, “F— Mike Pence.”
One student who stopped to write on the ball was LSA sophomore Lucas Renno, who thought while the beach ball may not entirely get the point across, it was a good start to talking about free speech at the University.
“I believe that free speech, as in the very idea of the right that anybody should be able to express an opinion without being censored or persecuted, is a right that is fundamental to our modern society, and to the very concept of democracy itself,” Renno said.
Engineering freshman Anu Tuladhar, who stopped to look at the ball, also said she believed it was a “cool way” to promote free speech.
“I think having a physical representation to just put your thoughts on is nice because it’s not something online where it’s completely anonymous, and you feel completely protected by cyberspace,” Tuladhar said. “You still have this place where you can just show everyone, ‘this is what I’m thinking.’ ”