The rules of free speech

October 18, 2013

by Joseph Banks

Over the weekend, the words on the Mauna a Wākea mural were painted over by Ka Leo in what is being called an attempt to censor an important message against the university’s plan to build a 30-meter telescope on Mauna Kea.

According to graduate student and director of the mural Haley Kailiʻehu now covered

mural had several statements as part of the final product including “UH cannot be a Hawaiian place of learning while leading the desecration of Mauna a Wākea,” “Hey UH, Be Accountable,” and “Stop the thirty meter telescope!” Murals are provided as an opportunity for students to showcase their talent as a preview for the Annual Arts Festival hosted by Ka Leo. This recent controversy exposes an issue that questions students’ freedom of speech rights at this university.

Upon completion of the mural on Saturday, Ka Leo staff first warned the student group leading the mural that UH would most likely order Ka Leo to cover up the words of protest. The group responded by telling the Ka Leo staff to step aside and allow the administration to take up the issue addressed in the mural with the students themselves. Instead, these students got the exact opposite of what they wanted. A Ka Leo representative painted over the words of the students expressing their opinions on the University’s support for a thirty meter telescope on delicate, sacred lands.

In an institute of higher education, where a key component of a student’s academic journey is to learn to think for oneself, students of UH Mānoa were kept from expressing their opinions on a serious issue.

According to Rob Reilly, a Ka Leo representative who ordered the cover-up, the words written in the final mural product were not in the original proposal and were therefore not approved. All murals go through an approval process before being painted. In addition, the canvas that houses the murals is not in a designated free speech areas and therefore not protected in any way by the first amendment.

As much of a case UH has for taking down the mural due to it being their property, the real issue lies with why our free speech is limited to specific areas on the campuses of the university system. If we are unable to express ourselves wherever we want throughout the university, how do we know where the line is drawn and who draws that line? In an interview with KITV, university officials stated that the school has other venues for free speech, and that the murals are not one of them.

Throughout universities in America, we have seen this happen before, and these situations often result in the establishment of “free-speech zones” on a given campus. Typically, these zones are limited to specific, small areas where freedom of speech is upheld, but these spaces are still controlled because events have to be registered with school officials and cannot expand past the zone’s boundaries. UH’s so called “free-speech zone” is located under the shaded green structure at the Hemenway Hall courtyard.

According to Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, this is the administrative self-interest at work. “There’s been this huge expansion in the bureaucratic class at universities,” he explained in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Lukianoff expresses that this kind of system at a university results in an “ever-renewing crop of administrators, and their jobs aren’t instruction but to police student behavior. In the worst cases, they see it as their duty to intervene on students’ deepest beliefs.”

Though the painting over a mural may seem trivial to some, it is necessary to understand that this may be a symbol and a precedent for what may come in the future. If UH will cover words of slander which challenge its involvement in controversial projects, who is to say this won’t happen again when addressing increasingly important issues that affect the student body and campus as a whole.

View this article at Kaleo.