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OPINION: Why Ohio U’s graffiti wall is free speech’s final stand on campus

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Free speech on college campuses is a rarity, opinion writer Ben Peters says. This is why the graffiti wall is so important for First Amendment rights.

Recent years have seen students’ and faculty members’ freedoms of speech and expression unjustly stifled on college and university campuses. The issue, unfortunately, seems to have come to a head this year on campuses all over the country.

No place on Ohio University’s campus represents free speech more than the graffiti wall. The wall has served as a campus-wide beacon of free speech and expression for decades. Students have used it for everything from protesting the Vietnam War to proposing to their significant others. The wall still stands today right outside of Bentley Annex and has more recently been used by political activists to announce their opinions.

The First Amendment to our Constitution protects an individual’s and a groups’ right to freely exercise speech, press and assembly as long as it is done so peacefully. The only real restrictions to speech as interpreted by the courts are either direct calls to violence or if a clear and present danger is derived from such speech.

While one of the tags on the wall has been a direct call to violence in the form of an illustration depicting an African American being lynched on a tree branch, it is truly a far cry from the free speech related madness ensuing on other campuses.

Statistically speaking, the vast majority of college-aged students are liberal, so that is typically the dominant voice on campuses. However, a vocal minority of the far left sees it fit to incite massive riots on campuses where its ideology is challenged by one that veers ever so slightly away from an ultra-liberal agenda.

University of California Berkeley, a school with a historical background of promoting free speech, has ironically been the host of such riots recently. In early February 2017, right-wing pundit Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to give a speech at Berkeley. Explosive riots broke out in opposition of his appearance before he even had the chance to speak. The riots caused $100,000 worth of damage perpetrated by “150 masked agitators”— known colloquially as antifa — leaving Berkeley engulfed in flames.

The chaos, unfortunately, doesn’t stop at just UC Berkeley. In early June 2017, Biology Professor Bret Weinstein of Evergreen State College wrote an anti-racism article in response to the college’s “day of absence.” The day is a tradition where white students don’t come to class on campus as a show of respect. Weinstein, who considers himself to be “deeply progressive,” was literally driven off campus by students, for fear of his life, in response to the piece. The worst part? The administration refused to back him in his battle for free speech. He has only recently since reached a deal with the administration to be paid out in order to prevent any further legal action against them.

All of these people wish to bring no physical harm to students or incite violence. They wish only to challenge the mainstream ideology and maybe get some students to think in ways they may not have previously — just as many of Ohio U’s own graffiti wall taggers do.

It’s been quite sobering to see that the battle for free speech is now being brought front and center here at Ohio U with President Nellis’ highly questionable interim Freedom of Expression Policy. The policy requires groups to seek permission from the university in order to gather in a university building.

This begs the question of what is to come for Ohio U’s famed graffiti wall that is attached to a university-owned building, but still technically outside.

This type of widely publicized avenue for students to express themselves is rare, especially in the current landscape we live in today where students are ousted for going against the grain, and riots are incited when an unorthodox ideology is presented. Thankfully, there has yet to be violence caused by messages tagged on the wall, fingers crossed.

The wall now is a last stand for freedom of speech on campus. Students continue to tag opinions for their classmates to see, only to then have their tag covered up by an opposing viewpoint, properly displaying healthy discourse. Students and outsiders alike should view this wall as a point of pride and proof that our administration and student population haven’t laid down their arms, like many other universities have, in the fight for free speech just yet.

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