Three Vanderbilt Students Teach a Freshman about Free Speech

By on April 22, 2013

Last week, in an article for the Vanderbilt Hustler titled "Chalk Gods," Vanderbilt University freshman Rani Banjarian wrote about feeling marginalized by religious messages written in chalk on the campus pavement: 

Trudging resolutely forward in my 7:55 a.m. stupor, functioning on fewer than five hours of sleep, I found myself particularly put-off by the statements of God’s greatness and His love that screamed out at me incessantly. I almost wanted to pull my backpack up around my head, duck and make a run for it, and while my questioning the intentions of those chalk markings is not as extreme, I admit that in the moment, the whole thing was quite overwhelming.

I felt incredibly marginalized knowing that I would not "let HIM lead," as the chalk markings suggested. Such statements do not belong in the public sphere, and I cannot see how anyone could possibly condone such blatant evangelism.

Former FIRE intern and Vanderbilt junior Kenny Tan alerted us to three letters to the editor in response to the "Chalk Gods" piece that make important points about free speech and controversial issues. 

First, freshman Perry Belcher points out the double standard Banjarian seems to apply to religious speech and to speech in support of gay rights: 

By the author’s definition of free speech, certainly the gay pride flags he referenced sympathetically in his last paragraph would be a violation of free speech. If we were to apply his grievances about Christian messages on sidewalks to the flags, one could reason that they are no less visible, and therefore they overstep personal bounds; they are "exclusive" because they represent one community of people; they are "accusatory" because the flags represent a rebellion against a society because of oppression; the flags are "inflammatory" because they are politically controversial. The author would surely object to these labels, and this is where the double standard truly lies. 

Next, sophomore Rachel Telles explains the danger in asking people to hide their religion from public view just because a student may find it "offensive":

Banjarian says that he only has a problem if "you overstep personal bounds and force (him) to see something (he acknowledges) exists but (does not) necessarily enjoy." I have heard similarly concerning arguments regarding many issues but most particularly in the recent debates regarding same-sex marriage. I worry about this idea that people are responsible for hiding the things that someone might not want to see. … [P]eople should not be expected to monitor their identities at all times to make sure that they don’t offend your sensibilities. 

Last, junior Laura Mast reminds us how critical it is that minority viewpoints be heard, even if they disturb some: 

What if we were to do what Rani Banjarian suggests and actually eliminate any public message that "forces people to see something they acknowledge exists but do not necessarily enjoy?" Are we actually considering preventing individuals or student groups from publicizing because their viewpoints are unpopular? Are we for a moment suggesting that a university atmosphere would be better if no one were offended, if no one were challenged to think differently or had to acknowledge viewpoints they didn’t agree with? 

(Unfortunately, Mast’s fears have already been partially realized through the actions of the Vanderbilt administration, which implemented a student organization policy that drove 13 religious groups off campus.)  

Read about these issues and more in the full text of "Chalk Gods" and in all three letters to the editor, posted on InsideVandy.com.

Schools: Vanderbilt University