Vandalism of Students’ Pro-life Display in Pa. Must Be Addressed

By on April 27, 2011

According to LifeNews.com, last week saw the severe vandalism and destruction of a student group’s pro-life display at Clarion University, a public university in Pennsylvania. In an article yesterday that includes photos of the vandalism, Steven Ertelt reports that the display, "Cemetery of the Innocents," features about 350 small pink and blue crosses to represent "unborn children who have been killed in abortions." The photos show many of the crosses turned upside down or broken into pieces and streaked with red paint. One photo shows the words "Pro-Choice!" painted in red in front of one of the display’s signs.

To make matters worse, according to Kristan Hawkins, Executive Director of Students for Life of America, the student group Clarion Students for Life "experiences some sort of vandalism" of its display "every year."

It should come as no surprise that vandalism is not a legal way to show opposition to someone else’s expression. The vandalism at Clarion University interferes with the right of Clarion Students for Life to express its views and with the right of others to see the display. I hope Clarion Students for Life presses Clarion University and the local police to investigate this illegal act so that the vandals will be held accountable.

Nationwide, student "Cemetery of the Innocents" displays on college campuses have frequently been vandalized. In 2006, Professor Sally Jacobsen of Northern Kentucky University invited students in one of her classes "to express their freedom-of-speech rights to destroy [an anti-abortion] display [of about 400 crosses] if they wished to." Some of the students did–and Jacobsen apparently helped. When asked about the incident, Jacobsen said, "Any violence perpetrated against that silly display was minor compared to how I felt when I saw it." Jacobsen was rightly charged with criminal solicitation.

In 2008, a YouTube video showed Student Government Association Senator Roderick King tearing up a "Cemetery of the Innocents" display at University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. At the beginning of the video, King says, "In 1973 it was made a constitutional right for a woman to have an abortion …. Since it’s a right, you don’t have the right to challenge it." He also reportedly said it was "his duty as a paying student" to take down the pro-life display. Of course, King was dead wrong.

Also in 2008, the day after Bears for Life at Missouri State University set up four thousand popsicle-stick crosses on a campus lawn, the student group found other students intentionally stepping on and rolling over the crosses. One individual even rode his bike through the display, breaking as many of the tiny crosses as possible. When asked why they were destroying the exhibit, one woman in the group said, "Because we can." Much of this vandalism was filmed and posted online.

If the LifeNews.com report is accurate but the Clarion University administration does not take a stand against this kind of behavior, the school will be sending a clear signal to its students that such actions are tolerated on campus and create a "heckler’s veto" by giving the least tolerant members of the college community the power to control the flow of discourse. This would be a travesty of justice and free speech for a public university bound by the federal Constitution, or indeed any university that values a free marketplace of ideas and the rule of law.

Schools: Clarion University of Pennsylvania