FIRE often exposes how colleges censor students—but last week, it was a student at Indiana University who decided to engage in some vigilante censorship by vandalizing a pro-life display.
According to a student account, new student organization Students for Life at IU intended to have a peaceful demonstration on campus as part of an organized protest dubbed the “Planned Parenthood Project.” The trouble reportedly began when a student approached the demonstration, removed wooden crosses meant to represent the number of abortions performed daily by Planned Parenthood from the ground, and threw them into a trash can. (The student report includes a photo of this.)
Unfortunately, FIRE sees incidents like this far too often. A pro-life display at at DePaul University was vandalized in January; one at Western Kentucky University was vandalized in 2012; another one was destroyed at Clarion University in 2011. Even one of FIRE’s 2013 interns experienced this form of censorship at Dartmouth College when his pro-life display was run over by a car ironically sporting a “tolerance” bumper sticker.
And it’s not just pro-life students that are victimized by vandalism. In 2011, a professor at Sam Houston State University took a box cutter to a “free speech wall” meant to teach students about their First Amendment Rights, and physically removed an anti-Obama comment.
FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley shares some advice for students considering such vandalism in a 2012 Daily Caller piece:
Here’s a First Amendment pro tip: vandalism is illegal no matter what reason you think you have. Some people think you have the right to vandalize offensive speech or “hate speech.” You don’t.
In talking about his book Unlearning Liberty, FIRE President Greg Lukianoff often expresses dismay that students are learning from colleges that censorship is not only acceptable but that it’s what right-thinking people should do. Unfortunately, this story provides evidence of that as well. In a video taken by the student group, another student—although not seen engaging in vandalism—reveals his desire for censorship, stating, “I’m saying that I’m acknowledging that I’m in conflict with you and that a lot of people are in conflict with you, and that if we can, if we are ever strong enough, we are going to stop you from doing this shit,” meaning the pro-life protest. The First Amendment protects this student’s right to express the desire to censor others. But the fact that a student on an American college campus would be so hostile to the mere expression of different opinions is a sign that the message of how a free society works is not getting through to everyone.
Universities are meant to be a marketplace of ideas. Everyone loses when ideas are censored. While speaking out against a message you do not agree with is protected speech, vandalism is not. So, when faced with a message you don’t agree with, instead of vandalizing or demanding censorship, fight back by using your free speech to convince others that your opinion is right.