Freedom of speech isn’t an excuse to preach intolerance

CT Opinions Editor Brianna Scott stands her ground against Westboro Baptist Church members. Photo by Alexandra Zernik

Brianna ScottOpinions Editor




This is the rhetoric us LGBTQ+ students were met with Monday morning. The infamous Westboro Baptist Church graced VCU’s campus with its lovely presence and even lovelier signs. Its members wanted to reach a diverse group of people, and they definitely met their match.

Westboro’s presence didn’t last long, and its member’s voices were drowned out by students counterprotesting. It felt unreal to be standing in front of them and to know they harbor so much hate for those of us who don’t fit into heterosexual, binary boxes.

But that wasn’t what upset me, believe it or not. What upset me was VCU’s lackluster attempts at inclusivity and the ambivalent student response.

VCU is a diverse college in terms of looks and ideas. The university plasters its diversity propaganda everywhere and people buy it — I bought it, since I am here paying tuition and considering returning for graduate school. However, VCU tends to protect intolerance in an effort to maintain a “diverse” image.

Freedom of speech is a complicated part of our U.S. Constitution, because hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. The problem with this is that hate speech isn’t just talk. It turns into hate crimes and discrimination and can get people killed.

It was just under three years ago, June 2016, when 49 people were killed at Pulse, a gay nightclub, in Orlando, Florida. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported a 17 percent increase in homicides of LGBTQ+ people in 2016.

The rate only keeps increasing. The NCAVP reported in 2017 that 52 LGBTQ+ people were killed as a result of hate violence.

At the beginning of the year, Dana Martin, a black transgender woman, was found dead on Jan. 6 near Montgomery, Alabama. Martin was the first reported trans person killed in 2019. The amount of reports are likely to increase this year.

A database tracking LGBTQ+ homicides since Matthew Shepard’s murder shows more than 600 LGBTQ+ people have been killed in the past two decades.

These killings are why it’s a problem to allow people and groups like the Westboro Baptist Church to have platforms. They aren’t spreading gospel; they are spreading hate. They picket dead soldiers’ funerals, and while I am not religious, there’s nothing Christian about that. You are supposed to love thy neighbor.

Freedom of speech ends when what you are saying oppresses people or gets people killed.

At a Conservative Political Action Conference, President Donald Trump spouted that he is making strides to issue an executive order “requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research dollars.”

Whether it happens or not, Trump seems only to support this in terms of mandating universities allow conservative speech on campuses.

Conservatism doesn’t have to be synonymous with hate — but it tends to allude to social views that lean racist, homophobic or sexist.

In VCU’s case, would the university prioritize funding over the safety and well-being of their students? I believe it would. When it came to light that Westboro planned on picketing near campus, VCU’s Office of the President only sent out a response after students caught wind on social media.

VCU planned a “Unity Day” event right next to a solidarity rally — which I attended — organized by two queer student organizations, as if giving out donuts and flowers would make up for LGTBQ+ students having slurs hurled at them.

The thing is, VCU didn’t even consult LGBTQ+ students on the “Unity Day” event and didn’t advertise the events planned by other organizations.

But so many LGBTQ+ students did a lot of activist and community organizing at the risk of re-traumatizing themselves and putting ourselves in danger.

Furthermore, I saw several students on social media telling many LGBTQ+ students to simply ignore the WBC.

If activists ignored oppressive groups, the civil rights movement would have never happened. We likely wouldn’t have marriage equality. Why should we stick our heads in the sand and hope for the best?

There truly wasn’t that much solidarity among students when Westboro came to campus. People can chalk it up to the fact that it was the first day back from spring break, but I believe it’s because many students simply didn’t care.

Being an activist doesn’t mean you are giving your oppressors power. You are showing them how much power you have, and that you won’t back down — that you’re willing to fight for change and equality.

The CT quote of the week is from Harvey Milk, a politician and the first openly gay elected official in the history of California who was assassinated in 1978. In a message he recorded in the event of his death, Milk said, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.”

To stand up for yourself in the face of discrimination and oppression is one of the greatest strengths a person can possibly have.

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