Hodge: The University finally strikes a balance between safety and free speech

Jayla Hodge

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

Yesterday, we watched the University prepare for the Dennis Prager event. Barricades were erected, students gathered on the plaza before it was shut down to speak in support or against the event and police force was heavy.

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Tension were high on campus. Just in the Black/African American Culture Center, I heard students discussing things like the possibility of a shooting or wondering if there are gonna be more neo-Nazis and white supremacists walking on campus, similar to last year’s Charlie Kirk event.

This event brought about a lot of stress and fear. These feelings are completely justified. In the past week, there have been three hate crimes committed in the name of white supremacy that made it to national news. We, as a community, have seen that these kind of events attract some of the worst parts of society.

They bring those openly support hateful ideologies like the Traditionalist Workers Party, also known as neo-Nazis, according to President Tony Frank, who notoriously marched through our campus.

Fortunately, Monday night’s event was not one of these instances. Prager presents himself as “a nice guy.” While some would find lot of his stances controversial, he did not present his views as extremely as Kirk and other far-right speakers. 

“Will someone queer, Muslim, or a woman be hurt by my appearance? That’s absurd,” Prager said at the event. “My coming here endangers people? That’s pathetic.”

While we must not equate all conservative speakers to Nazism and extremism, we must recognize the reasoning for the apprehension. Though Prager is not as extreme, it is possible that his presence was threatening to some students.

Some have the privilege of simply seeing this event as a conflict around freedom of speech, an American fundamental that must not be limited. They can separate what they see as politics from their everyday life. For others, events like this are not focused around this freedom, but are viewed as threats to their safety.

Last year, when Turning Point USA brought Charlie Kirk to campus, many read about the neo-Nazi’s that marched across campus. I attended the event with other students of color and student of the BAACC. 

Some of us did not feel safe attending Turning Point’s event alone and our fears were confirmed.

Near the end of the event we had been ushered out and lead to the BAACC office. We were confused when we were approached by faculty and an armed police officer. Unbeknownst to us, while in the event tensions outside with protesters had escalated.

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We were told we hadn’t done anything wrong, but it was unsafe for us to leave. Unsafe for us to be walking around campus alone. Together we stood shocked and nervous. Employees told us they could not force us to stay in the room, but they did not recommend we go. 

Then came the Snapchats. Outside the very building we were being held in, we saw videos of neo-Nazis marching and chanting across the plaza. We had been held inside because the outside groups had made the campus a battleground for their political ideologies and the threat of violence loomed.

Finally, after the groups had cleared, we were told we could walk to our cars. If we wanted to be escorted by the officer that was an option. We were told not to walk or go anywhere alone. Later, my friends, particularly my White ones, would say, “we can’t believe that happened, that’s crazy.”

This happened in 2018, on this campus. Students of color were unable to safely walk around a campus they pay to go to because of a controversial speaker, intentionally or not, made it that way.

This happened in 2018, on this campus. Students of color were unable to safely walk around a campus they pay to go to because of a controversial speaker, intentionally or not, made it that way.

It should not be hard to distinguish against the the extreme elements and the benign elements of the far-right, like those who tell Black students to go back to Africa and those who simply appreciate old-time traditional values, but unfortunately they tend to travel in the same circles.

It is consistent that when organizations like Turning Point hold events people feel threatened, security is bolstered and violence is in the air. It is irresponsible to pretend that there is not some connection between the ideas they promote and the real danger felt by vast segments of the community.

Where there is smoke, there is fire.

We should not deny speakers the right to speak on this campus, nor student organizations from bringing them. But ignoring the effects these events have on people does not solve the problem, it buries it. 

We must find the balance between respecting free speech and taking the safety concerns of students seriously. This event in itself was a hopeful start. During the event, students felt heard and were able to express their views without having to deal with the possibility of hate groups outside.

We as a community need to make students feel safe, even when we have speakers that dismiss things like sexual assault culture and invoke skepticism on issues like racism. As Prager said himself, in America we let even the worst people speak.

Jayla Hodge can be reached at letters@collegian.com or online at @Jaylahodge.