Speaker’s Circle has held its position as the epicenter of free speech on the campus of the University of Missouri since its construction in 1986, but that position might not be held for much longer.
The circle outside of Ellis Library is a well-known place where anyone is allowed to speak without being required to have a permit. Anyone, as in anyone from fraternities and sororities advertising charity events to a man kicking around a hacky sac to demonstrations about social issues to preachers shouting for all to hear. Whether the words are peaceful in nature or not, all are welcome to make themselves heard.
Mizzou’s campus has been a hotbed for demonstrations about social issues during the fall 2015 semester. Demonstrations have ranged from the graduate student protests, to advocating for the change of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, and, most recently, the Concerned Student 1950 group. These groups have fought to make their voices heard. In an effort to make their demonstrations memorable, these groups and others have chosen to venture outside the confines of Speaker’s Circle.
A prominent example was the graduate student walkout. The removal of subsidies for graduate student health insurance by the administration resulted in students taking to social media to express their opinions on the decision and later deciding that the move beyond the Internet was the next step. The ability to organize and mobilize a substantial number of students made the words they shouted at the base of the Columns and in Traditions Plaza difficult to ignore.
Hallie Thompson, president of the Graduate Professional Council, said the Columns were chosen as the sight of protest because it provided aesthetic of “a sea of red, the green grass, white columns, and Jesse Hall.” The subsequent march to Traditions Plaza was chosen because the graduate students were “creating a new tradition.”
The graduate student demonstration may have been the first memorable student activism event this semester, but it was far from the last.
Spurred by incidences of racism on campus, students organized to prove to unaware members of the student body and faculty that “Racism Lives Here.” Demonstrations have taken place in Speaker’s Circle, the Student Center, Jesse Hall, and even during the Homecoming Parade. Each event had a particular focus to it, but the overarching goal was to bring attention to the existence of racism both inside and outside the campus.
Reuben Faloughi, a graduate student and participant in multiple Racism Lives Here demonstrations, explained that the event that sparked his involvement in the movement was the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown. As he explained, he had been running from the extreme discomfort he felt due to internal and external forms of oppression up until then, and that event caused him to stop running and instead speak up.
“My desire is to want to help people,” he said. “It pushes me to create spaces.”
Creating spaces and facilitating discussion was a common thread among the members of multiple protests. When students decide to speak up, they can realize that they are not alone in how they feel and can hear other perspectives on what should be done.
The Legion of Black Collegians brought wider attention to the presence of racism by standing in front of the car carrying Timothy Wolfe, now former president of the University of Missouri System, halting the Homecoming parade in the process. Due to a perceived lack of acknowledgement from Wolfe and the administration, those students formed a movement called Concerned Student 1950, which refers to the year African-American students were first admitted to the University of Missouri. Since the demonstration during the Homecoming parade, numerous other demonstrations have been held. The movement garnered national attention when the African-American members of the football team stated they would not participate in any football-related activities until Wolfe stepped down.
Although the above demonstrations are likely the most publicized events, they are not the only ones. Demonstrations have covered a wide spectrum of topics, from the topical to the deep, and show no signs of diminishing in number.
What can we take from these multiple protests?
These demonstrations have had a lasting impact on the campus, from the return of graduate health insurance subsidies, to the mandatory training in diversity and inclusion for Mizzou faculty and first-time students, to an overall increased awareness of issues facing the University.
In addition, there has been a perceived increase in activism this semester compared to last. This could be due to a myriad of reasons, one being legality.
As stated by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education website, on July 14, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed the Campus Free Expression Act, into law. This law now prevents colleges and universities from restricting speech to “tiny, out of the way free speech zones,” which essentially transforms the entirety of Mizzou’s campus into a free speech zone.
“For issues on which one is passionate, that is a constitutional right,” said Sandra Davidson, professor of journalism and adjunct professor at the MU School of Law, in reference to the right to assemble.
That is a right that has been argued both for and against in multiple court cases since the founding of the United States.
One of those cases was Tinker v. Des Moines, where three public school students were suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Though the students were quiet and passive, administrators adopted a policy where any student seen wearing an armband at school would be asked to remove it and would be suspended if they should refuse. The students sued the school and the case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the Justices voted 7-2 in favor of the students.
“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” Justice Abe Fortas said.
It is that philosophy that has allowed college campuses to become and continue to be public forums for free speech.
When students use that forum and decide to speak up, they often find that they are not as alone as they might have thought at first and realize that a large number of people feel similarly. Protests and social movements allow for varied experiences to be shared and can create a sort of camaraderie among individuals.
“You really start to see the uniqueness of people,” Faloughi said, in reference to what he has learned through his participation in Racism Lives Here demonstrations, “Everybody has something to contribute.”
Perhaps that is the true reason for the perceived increase in protests this past year. It is not that the number is increasing, but that the awareness of social issues being discussed is increasing, due to a sort of spotlight being focused on public demonstrations.
As progressively larger numbers of students begin to have deep conversations, bonds are formed that span backgrounds and belief systems. New movements can spring forth from old movements, some small movements merge to create larger movements that cover a wide spectrum of topics, and some movements fracture and reform as ideas split and coalesce over time.
Social movements are an ongoing process, a process that contributes to the continuation of free expression in the United States. It is a process that allows people from all backgrounds to come together and attempt to find solutions to issues facing the world today.
“We’re trying to be allies to other groups and we’re trying to be more involved because we’re all stronger together, and as much as we need their support, they also need ours,” Thompson said.