COMMENTARY: The Art of Apologies: Differing without defacing

John Sohl

Like every kid, I used to get into trouble when I did something wrong, and I had to apologize, whether it be for talking back to my parents or for hitting my little brother. The worst times were when I really believed I did what was right but later learned that I did it the wrong way. Even then, I had to recognize my errors and apologize. 

During the early morning hours of April 20, students were watching over a display of crosses at the Colonnade when an art student, Elaina Smith, draped condoms over as many as she could. These crosses symbolized the number of lives lost and women harmed by abortions done every single day, about 3,700 of each. At that rate, the entire student population of WKU would be wiped out in less than a week. 

Ms. Smith obviously wanted to express a different message than Hilltoppers for Life, and thus, she draped a condom on many of our small crosses. She has every right to express her opinions, but she does not have the right to express it by desecrating our display. We spent a great deal of time planning the display, reserving the space for it and then assembling all the crosses and backgrounds. If she wanted to express her views, Ms. Smith should have gone through the same process and constructed her own display. 

But she didn’t. She took a “shortcut” of hijacking our display for her purposes. This is not free speech — this is vandalism. The Supreme Court has clearly ruled that the First Amendment does not give you the right to commandeer someone else’s speech to make your own point. Thus, she should apologize. Similarly, President Gary Ransdell and the campus police should apologize for doing nothing to stop Ms. Smith from desecrating our crosses. 

The Administration says it favors free speech. That’s great, but no one seems to be taking our free speech rights seriously. No one has come forward to say they are sorry for disrupting our free speech or for allowing Ms. Smith to do so. No one is assuring us that she will not receive “art” credit for her vandalism. No one is instructing professors like Dr. Arnold on what free speech really means. 

When we started Hilltoppers for Life, I knew it would not be without controversy. Abortion is a divisive issue, and we seek to open up dialogue about the tragedy it represents. Of course, people will differ with us, but if our critics truly value free speech, then they will counter our ideas, not deface our displays.  

When I was little, I learned to apologize when I did something wrong. Certainly, WKU students, professors and administrators can do the same. Ms. Smith is entitled to her opinions, but she and her supporters need to apologize for expressing them the wrong way. And WKU needs to demonstrate its commitment to the First Amendment by showing that it will protect all speech — even unpopular speech — from interference. 

John Sohl

President, Hilltoppers for Life

This commentary doesn’t necessarily represent the views of the Herald or the university.