On February 23rd, Williams for Life (WFL) hosted a display from Students for Life of America (SFLA) discussing when human rights begin. The display featured six banners with pictures of fetal development and a timeline, from conception to birth, that allowed students to vote on when this starting point is. During this event, a student began to protest in response to our display. I would like to offer several thoughts and correct some misconceptions about what happened.
First, the student who protested has no affiliation with WFL (it seems that some students thought that he may have been with us). Although we anticipate this type of opposition at our events, we generally hope that it leads to reasonable discussion between pro-choice and pro-life proponents. However, the student who protested made it very explicit that he would not talk with anyone from WFL or SFLA about his opinions or concerns, even though a representative from SFLA asked him if he wanted to talk upon his arrival. Starting around 11:30 a.m., he proceeded to talk loudly about Satan and the extermination of humans (it was not until around 12:30 p.m. that Campus Safety and Security was contacted). This occurred while he wore a blessed rosary around his neck.
I respect this student’s right to protest our event, since he certainly has freedom of speech in the same way that WFL does in hosting the display. However, when one’s expressed purpose is to “bring people over to the display and make sure no one talking to the pro-lifers could have a moment of peace” (“Pro-life presentation hosted by Williams for Life incites protest from student,” Feb. 25, 2015), a line is crossed. In order to have free speech, each side has to allow the other to actually talk to one another. No members of WFL or SFLA obstructed the student’s protest to prevent him from speaking, while his express purpose was to not allow those who came to speak with us “a moment of peace.” As described by the Williams Code of Conduct: “Accepting membership in this community entails an obligation to behave with courtesy to others whose beliefs and behavior differ from one’s own; all members and guests of this community must be free of disturbance or harassment, including racial and sexual harassment.”
I also question the relevance of the religious criticisms of our display, given that WFL is a secular group and that one of the organizers of the event (the writer of this op-ed) is an agnostic. More importantly, though anyone has the right to voice his or her criticisms, even in ways that may offend people, you cannot call the student’s choice to wear a blessed rosary while espousing satirical views on Satan respectful or courteous to others. I cannot help but think that if the student had been protesting a more popular religious or political view, the campus would have already received e-mails from the College administration on the need for respecting others’ beliefs, as the administration should rightly do under such circumstances. Even in situations where someone targets a political group that most students disagree with, the administration should affirm everyone’s right to speak freely without the fear of being prevented from speaking at all.
WFL hosts events like this display to get students talking, but in a reasonable format. Additionally, this display was chosen among others because it was noticeably tame for such a contentious issue. It was our hope that a straightforward display would make discussion easier between people on different sides of the issue. It is unfortunate that the day dissolved into what it is known for now, but we are still glad to have hosted SFLA and to have talked with other students. We look forward to holding more events this semester and in years to come.
Matt Quinn ’17 is from Pawtucket, R.I. He lives in Thompson.