NOTE: The article excerpted on this page is from an outside publication and is posted on FIRE's website because it references FIRE's work. The viewpoints expressed in this article do not necessarily represent FIRE's positions.
by Ben Johnson
Life Site News
BOWLING GREEN, KENTUCKY, April 24, 2012, (LifeSiteNews.com) – The president of Western Kentucky University said the desecration of an approved pro-life display has been “properly, decisively” dealt with – although a pro-life student group has pointed out that there has been no apology to the pro-life students, and the student responsible has apparently not been disciplined. In fact, according to Students for Life, the woman who placed condoms over each cross in the pro-life display may still receive college credit for her act of vandalism.
The student group Hilltoppers for Life got university permission to erect 3,700 crosses in a Cemetery of the Innocents, commemorating the number of babies aborted each day. Early last Friday morning the group’s president, John Sohl, confronted the woman, Elaina Smith, and her non-student boyfriend as they placed condoms over thousands of crosses that made up the pro-life display. Smith said she had her professor’s permission for the project, according to Sohl.
Campus police allowed Smith to finish placing condoms over the crosses and take a picture for class before asking her to remove them.
WKU President Gary A. Ransdell issued a statement today saying the controversy is over.
“The offending student has apologized,” according to Ransdell. But Students for Life Executive Director Kristan Hawkins says the student has made no public apology. “We have still not be able to determine from the university whether or not the art student will receive class credit for putting her condoms on the pro-life group’s crosses,” said Hawkins.
On Monday, Smith told local media, “I had worried that my idea might offend some. However, after giving it a lot of thought, I came to believe that it is no more or less offensive than the original installation.”
Ransdell wrote, “The faculty member’s intent of the art assignment was not to target this particular display. That decision was made by the student.”
While he wrote that WKU administrators met with the student and her professor, he did not indicate any further action would be taken against either.
“This matter has been dealt with properly, decisively, and brought to a conclusion,” Ransdell wrote.
“It’s a form of vandalism when you mark up somebody’s displays without permission, and it should generally be treated as such,” Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the academic watchdog groupFoundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) told LifeSiteNews.com. “I would think that most faculty members would understand that when somebody puts up a display, whether it be for art or for political purposes, that’s not to be converted by somebody else, whether by the faculty or by their own initiative.”
“When you’re dealing with a contentious issue like abortion, sometimes people sacrifice their good judgment for political considerations,” he said.
Students for life has asked President Ransdell and Western Kentucky University to do three things immediately “to remedy this situation and put it to rest”: have Smith publicly apologize, ask the campus police to apologize for their inaction, and to confirm in writing Smith will receive no credit for the vandalism.
Shibley said the college wants to move on as quickly as possible. “Universities are averse to controversy,” Shibley told LifeSiteNews.com. “Just because the university may not want it out there doesn’t mean you don’t have a legitimate problem with how the university is treating you.”
“I think it’s a sad fact that many faculty members across the county don’t have a good understanding of what free speech means in a free society like ours.”
Students whose rights have been violated should not be afraid to contact organizations such as FIRE, which represents students in court, or to go to the local media. “Tell your story and get the story out there,” he said. “FIRE is the leading organization doing that.”
The president’s response in full is below:
Thank you for your recent email regarding the unfortunate and distasteful act which occurred at the Hilltoppers for Life pro-life display on the WKU campus last Thursday night. My colleagues on the faculty and staff at WKU take this matter very seriously. Unfortunately, Dean Dennis George was incorrectly identified as a responsible party. He is a Dean of one of six undergraduate colleges and in no way relates to our campus Police or student disciplinary procedures.
In response to your message, we offer the following insights. The pro-life display was created by a sanctioned official WKU student organization called Hilltoppers for Life. They requested and received permission to create their display which consisted of red and black paper covering the bleacher seats of our campus amphitheater with several small crosses made from popsicle sticks glued to the paper. It was on display during the week of April 16 and was taken down, as scheduled on Friday morning, April 20.
On the morning of April 20 at around 2:30 a.m., one student and her non-student boyfriend chose to place condoms over some of the crosses as a gesture of birth control. They said it was an assignment from an Art Installation course that involves placing art exhibits across campus. The faculty member’s intent of the art assignment was not to target this particular display. That decision was made by the student who chose to make her own statement for birth control at the expense of the Hilltoppers for Life endeavor.
The Hilltoppers for Life students keeping watch over the exhibit, after allowing a few hundred condoms to be placed on the crosses, eventually called the police who arrived promptly. It was a calm scene and the police chose to keep it that way. They allowed the student to remove the condoms and leave peacefully-which is what occurred. There was no aggressive behavior or incident. The display was not damaged other than the disrespectful symbolism that this incident unfortunately created.
When I and the appropriate administrators learned of the situation, we promptly issued a statement in support of free speech and that the University does not condone any attempts by individuals or groups to inhibit anyone’s or any group’s right to free speech or creative activity. The proper administrators have also met with the student and faculty member. Our message was direct and firm.
No member of our University family should impede another member of our family’s freedom of speech or creative effort, especially when it comes to exercising religious freedoms. The offending student has apologized. This matter has been dealt with properly, decisively, and brought to a conclusion. Your interest in and support of WKU and its priorities for First Amendment rights is appreciated.
Gary A. Ransdell