Demonstration at Wright State sparks debate over campus free speech

College administrators across the nation are being questioned on their decisions that some say bar free speech from campuses.

Wright State University found itself at the center of the ongoing debate about campus free speech Wednesday when questions emerged over how the school handled an anti-abortion demonstration.

The issue of free speech at colleges has bubbled up in recent months as some schools have canceled or not allowed controversial and sometimes conservative figures to speak or host events on campus.

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Wright State sent out a campus-wide email Tuesday night, warning students of the demonstration. The email, sent by interim WSU vice president of student affairs Gary Dickstein, stated that that the public university “must allow” the activists on campus, even if they express views that some might find offensive.

The message prompted criticism from state Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miami Twp.

“I’m saddened it seemed as if he were taking a position on this protest when he said it ‘must’ be allowed, that it might be ‘offensive,’ and that he will ensure the group ‘behaves,’” Antani said. “This is disturbing when university campuses already seem to be a bastion of liberal ideology.”

Wright State encouraged people uncomfortable with the event to avoid the quad where the demonstration was scheduled for. Dickstein also said people could seek support from the school’s counseling and wellness center, a statement Antani took aim at.

“Students do not need counseling services because of a protest,” Antani said.

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Wright State spokesman Seth Bauguess declined to respond directly to Antani’s comments. But, from now on the university plans to notify students, staff and faculty every time an off-campus group plans to hold a demonstration on campus, he said.

“We had people in our community wanting to know when these types of things were happening,” Bauguess said. “We decided we’re going to be more committed going forward to telling our campus about these things.”

Republicans such as Antani and U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Urbana have criticized colleges for not allowing demonstrators with certain views from hosting events.

Ohio University in Athens earlier this month announced a new policy banning protests in university buildings. About two weeks ago Ohio State University declined a speaking request from white supremacist Richard Spencer due to safety concerns.

Restrictions which have been highlighted nationally and across the state led Ohio House Republicans to introduce the Campus Free Speech Act in August.

The bill would eliminate designated “free speech zones” and also prevent colleges from prohibiting certain speakers on the basis of reaction or offense taken. Several other states have either adopted laws or are considering similar bills.

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“We have been fortunate to avoid the madness of UC Berkeley or the University of Missouri, but Ohio is not immune,” State Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, said in a prepared statement last month.

For four hours on Wednesday, approximately 10 anti-abortion activists from a group called Created Equal were in the WSU quad where they talked to students and handed out pamphlets. The group set up 4 feet by 3 feet placards with abortion-related images and photos of women who had died from complications that stemmed from abortions.

Gabriel Vance, director of external affairs for Created Equal, said the group did not take issue of the university’s decision to notify students, staff and faculty of the demonstration ahead of time. The group actually had a few signs set up warning people of the placards that were on display.

The anti-abortion group has felt the squeeze in the ongoing debate over free speech on campus though, Vance said.

“It really depends on the campus that you go to. Some campuses are very helpful and work with us a lot,” Vance said. “Sometimes they try to restrict our free speech in a way that just isn’t constitutional by restricting the time or place or manner…Many times we’re able to push back on that.”

Vance said some of their signs were destroyed on Ohio University’s campus during a recent visit. The group wears GoPro cameras on their torsos to deter violence while also recording conversations they have with people, Vance said.

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Abigail LeBlanc, a sophomore from Urbana, protested the anti-abortion demonstration with a poster board sign she had made. While LeBlanc said she disagreed with the message of the demonstration, she said she agreed that nothing should be done to prevent it from taking place.

“I do think they have every right to be here,” Vance said. “I am glad that we are on a campus where everybody’s opinion is valued because it makes my opinion more valued.”

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