Dear President Ransdell:
As a supporter of Hilltoppers for Life, I am deeply concerned at the way its pro-life display was vandalized on April 20, 2012. I am perhaps more concerned with the way Western Kentucky University (WKU) officials have responded to this criminal action. As this story continues to unfold, the facts suggest that at least one WKU official knew in advance this vandalism would occur. Later, several officials did nothing to stop it. This is simply inexcusable in a climate of higher learning.
As you already know, Hilltoppers for Life erected approximately 3,700 crosses in order to commemorate the number of babies aborted every day in the United States. On the morning of April 20th, Elaina Smith, an art student at your university, began placing condoms on each of the crosses. Members of Hilltoppers for Life confronted her peacefully and asked her to stop. She simply refused to do so. This young feminist did not seem to understand that no really means no.
When campus security officers arrived, they did nothing. That bears repeating: The police simply sat there and watched her break the law. That kind of laziness is appalling. It makes me wonder whether your police have tenure. Unbelievably, Ms. Smith told them she was completing an approved art assignment by desecrating the crosses. And the cops actually bought her “my professor made me do it” defense!
Your April 24th statement claims that Ms. Smith’s professor, Kristina Arnold, did not really intend to target the pro-life display. Unfortunately, Dr. Arnold contradicted that when she told WBKO that she did not disapprove of Ms. Smith’s proposed vandalism. She admitted that she knew of it in advance and did nothing whatsoever to stop it. So who is lying? Is it you or Dr. Arnold?
Other comments indicate that Arnold actually condoned Ms. Smith’s acts. For example, she smugly stated, “Learning and debating are not always pretty or polite processes. Critical engagement with ideas can get messy.” But nowhere in her statements did she indicate that “critical engagement” also involves respecting the free speech rights of fellow students. Professors should also know that no means no.
While it is encouraging to hear you say that you and your fellow administrators value free speech, so far WKU’s actions have not demonstrated that it really understands the First Amendment. When student freedoms have been criminally violated, issuing private assurances and holding secret meetings falls short of the mark. You preside over a public university, not a secret society.
I have already seen some of the internal emails in connection with this unfortunate event. The most notable comes from Ms. Smith and contains the following admission: “During the week of April 16th, the Hilltoppers for Life’s pro-life display remained un-interrupted. The student body tolerated this intrusion without major incident. The voice of the pro-life community was heard. On the last day of this event, I attempted to add to the visual dialogue with my own voice and was met with strong resistance.”
The very idea that one of your university students deems others’ speech as an “intrusion” and the desecration of other people’s property as an attempt “to add to the visual dialogue” is simply dumbfounding. This makes perfectly clear the need for immediate action in order to correct her fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between vandalism and free speech.
Accordingly, I suggest that Dr. Arnold’s art students be sent on a series of assignments – for full academic credit – that will help them better appreciate the difference between protected speech and unprotected violations of the Kentucky criminal code. The following assignments should teach them that their actions are not always protected – even when they are in possession of 3700 condoms:
*Go find Elaina Smith’s Prius in the WKU parking lot. Adorn it with 3700 “Abortion is Murder” bumper stickers. Then ask whether she thinks the stickers “add to the visual dialogue” on the abortion debate.
*Go find Dr. Arnold’s office on the campus of WKU. Adorn her door with 3700 pictures of aborted babies. Then ask whether she thinks the pictures “add to the visual dialogue” on the abortion debate.
*Photo-shop a picture of Jessie Jackson holding a condom saying “Don’t be like me. Suit up and avoid an unexpected love child.” Tape the picture on the door of the African American Center. See whether this visual creates a better dialogue.
*Next, photo shop a picture of the prophet Mohammad with a condom over his head. Tape the picture on the door of the Muslim Student Association office. See whether you can get the NEA to defer your costs.
*Next, go to the campus Gay and Lesbian Center. Burn a rainbow flag just like the hippies who burn the American flag. And make sure it’s their rainbow flag. Remember to tell them you are just trying to expand the visual dialogue – even after the room is filled with smoke!
I can imagine no better way to promote equality and learn about the First Amendment all at once. Just have your students insult everyone while trespassing on their personal property. If people get angry, that’s their problem. Learning is not always pretty and polite. And critical engagement can sometimes get messy.