Though universities frequently wax eloquent about the critical importance of free speech, they often fail to protect vigorously the basic freedoms of pro-life students. And Western Kentucky University is the latest example of this gap between rhetoric and reality on campus.
Last week, WKU’s pro-life student group—Hilltopper’s for Life—set up a Cemetery of the Innocents display. It consisted of about 3,700 small crosses, commemorating the number of lives lost to abortion in the United States everyday. But in the wee hours of the morning on April 20th, Elaina Smith—an art student at WKU—began placing condoms on each of the crosses. When members of Hilltoppers for Life confronted her and asked her to stop, she refused. When campus security officers arrived, they did nothing, claiming that “the condoms aren’t actually vandalism.” For her part, Ms. Smith claimed she was completing an approved art assignment by desecrating this pro-life display.
Quickly, the University shifted into damage control mode. President Ransdell issued a statement on April 24th, saying that Ms. Smith’s art professor, Kristina Arnold, never intended to target the pro-life event. However, Dr. Arnold told local media that she did not disapprove of Ms. Smith’s proposed vandalism via condoms, and she even defended it as an example of “[c]ritical engagement with ideas.”
President Ransdell also tried to assure the public that the “offending student has apologized.” Apparently this was news to Ms. Smith, according to the e-mail she sent local reporters and even WKU officials yesterday:
From: “Smith, Elaina, C”
. . .
Sent: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 3:11 PM
Subject: Elaina Smith
During the week of April 16th, the Hilltoppers for Life’s pro-life display remained un-interrupted. The student body tolerated this intrusion without major incident. The voice of the pro-life community was heard. On the last day of this event, I attempted to add to the visual dialogue with my own voice and was met with strong resistance. I take this subject very seriously, and had hoped to remind people of the effectiveness of condoms and other forms of contraception in preventing unwanted pregnancies. I do not ask that everyone agree with my point of view or the way in which I tried to express it. However, I stand by my actions. I do not believe that I impeded anyone else’s freedom of expression. I did not break any laws. I did not damage any property. I voluntarily removed the condoms even though I was not required to do so. At the time, I thought that the matter had ended there. I do not feel that I should apologize for attempting to exercise the freedoms that we all are entitled to.
Perhaps, it is time that Ms. Smith and her professor enrolled in Free Speech 101. This pro-life display was not “an intrusion” to be “tolerated”; it is the very sort of expression that the First Amendment exists to protect. She did not “add to the visual dialogue”; she engaged in vandalism. If she wanted to communicate her message or showcase “critical engagement with ideas,” she could hold her own event. She is perfectly free to desecrate crosses and call it “art.” (After all, “art” covers just about anything, and she might even get government funding.) But the First Amendment does not allow her to hijack someone else’s expression and to desecrate someone else’s display.
If pro-life students had disrupted a pro-abortion event, it is likely that professors and the administration would be falling all over themselves to issue proclamations, punish the students, hold candlelight vigils, and sponsor endless seminars on civility and tolerance. But they have done nothing—other than hold secret meetings and issue broad platitudes—to ensure that pro-life speech is protected. To the administration, the matter is closed. Move along, nothing to see here.
But WKU spoke a bit prematurely. Today, President Ransdell received a letter from ADF, insisting that WKU take concrete action to punish those who conducted and facilitated this vandalism and to protect pro-life expression. We sincerely hope that he and the rest of the WKU administration will recognize that they have a duty to protect the First Amendment freedoms of all their students, including pro-lifers who endeavor to provide a voice for the voiceless.