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‘Unlearning Liberty’: Censorship of Pro-Life Speech at UGA

Pro-life campus organizations are a frequent victim of “unlearning liberty,” as FIRE has copiously documented throughout the years. A new case at the University of Georgia (UGA) provides the latest example.

The group Students For Life at UGA (SFLUGA) had invited representatives from the anti-abortion group Justice For All (JFA) to campus, where they displayed large abortion-related images for passersby to witness earlier this week. The images are graphic, as the group aims to take the abortion debate out of the abstract.

Several students counter-protested JFA’s presence on campus, and much of this counter-protest was peaceful and non-disruptive. Pro-choice students and student organizations distributed their own literature, displayed posters conveying their opposition, and handed out condoms.

Some students, however, took counter-protesting too far:

Peacefully engaging messages with which one disagrees is a fine and admirable thing to do; as FIRE always says, the proper response to “bad” speech is more, “better” speech. However, the scene depicted above, taken from recent protests of JFA’s display, with students stretching bedsheets around the area of the display to block it from view, does not qualify as more speech.

Rather than answer speech with speech, as FIRE and other civil liberties groups advocate, these protesters apparently believe that the answer to JFA’s speech is censorship. To SFLUGA and JFA they have essentially said, “We’ll decide for you if people should be able to receive your message.” As The College Fix reported:

[Sexual Health Advocacy Group] president Danielle Duncan told The College Fix that the intent was not to suppress JFL’s speech, but to give students a choice about whether to view the prominent display or not.

“You should have the option to look at what you want to,” Duncan said, “but you should also have the option to not look at what you don’t want to.”

This is another way of saying that students have a right not to be offended by the content of the group’s display—a sentiment that is anathema to the idea of the university, described by the Supreme Court as “peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’” As we’ve long said at FIRE, if you manage to go all the way through your college career without being offended, you should ask for your money back.

The power students vest in themselves to censor the speech of other students is inimical to the First Amendment and to higher education. It’s also a power they shouldn’t want to have. Why? As I wrote a couple of weeks ago in response to a column in The Harvard Crimson, we should be wary of any system that allows the personal tastes and subjective opinions of others to decide what may or may not be said on campus. To legitimize the means of censorship on display here is to tacitly green-light the use of such tactics against your expression if others deem it sufficiently “hateful,” as Duncan characterized JFA’s display. A very simple thought exercise conjures scenarios where these students might rail at similar acts of censorship. What if the displays in question here were instead calling attention to the issue of violence against women? Or anti-gay violence? Or child sex trafficking? As I wrote in my earlier entry, “You can protest your disenfranchisement but only at the cost of your credibility—because, after all, this is the system you wanted in the first place.”

It is incumbent upon UGA to reject this censorship against SFLUGA’s event. Unfortuntatley, I’m not sure that the University has gotten this message. The College Fix writes:

While the pro-life and pro-choice demonstrations were packed closely together in Tate Plaza, the director of the Tate Student Center, Dr. Jan Barham, told The College Fix in an email that there had been no trouble.

“I have engaged various leaders in a dialogue around freedom of expression and the importance of having an environment in which we can engage in civil discourse,” Barham said. “The leaders of [all] organizations have been cooperative and accommodating to each other and have worked to ensure the various perspectives are respected and free of censorship.”

In the case of the students actively blocking the display, it’s clear that the affair was not “free of censorship.” If the UGA administration recognizes this and is sending a message to students that they all have a duty to respect each others’ First Amendment rights, then we wholly endorse its statement. If, on the other hand, it thinks the censorship on display here is within the acceptable bounds of free expression, it must be disabused of that notion—and quickly.

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