“Babies are cute.”
“I saw Goody Ransdell with the devil!”
Which statement most needs protection? The first is uncontroversial, unremarkable and will never need an advocate. But while President Ransdell mouths support for free speech in the abstract, he denounces Elaina Smith’s engagement of the pro-life project, demonstrating little respect for free speech made concrete. Ransdell condemns Smith’s work as “unfortunate and distasteful,” and “disrespectful symbolism.” The perpetrators, we’re told, were taken to task, sent a message “direct and firm.”
I’m sure Ransdell was stunned by the negative onslaught stirred by Fox Radio’s reportage. All university presidents worry over donations and recruitment, so a reluctance to support controversial speech is understandable. But free speech should never be mitigated by short-term desires to smooth things over. Larger concerns are at play here.
So we get the tortured letter in “support” of free speech that’s sanctioned, channeled, polite. Ransdell’s forceful framing of the event disturbs me, too. We’re told Hilltoppers for Life sought and received permission for their project, while Smith snuck in like a vandal in the night. “Several small crosses” were covered by “hundreds” of condoms, so our perception is shaped. Is a condom “distasteful,” “unfortunate” or “disrespectful?” Is a cross always holy and wholesome? The Klan burns crosses, neither holy nor wholesome. Enter intent. Smith exercised free speech as citizen, student, artist and activist, to engage HFL, their installation, the community at large. Nothing was trampled, broken, or spoiled. In pick-up basketball terms, “no harm, no foul.”
The shocking visual pierced stale and static imagery by trying to shift the conversation to solutions. Perhaps visual artists speak a different language than administrators, but magic and surprise often erupt from an unsanctioned moment. Recall the iconic Bernie Boston photograph that captured a protestor inserting a flower into a soldier’s rifle. That “conversation” between state and citizen encapsulated the national struggle during the Vietnam War.
If the HFL display is sanctified and immutable, what kind of real conversation can be had? Recently, conservative state legislatures have dismantled and defunded proven methods of decreasing unwanted pregnancies: sex education classes, family-planning clinics, contraceptives for the poor. Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, yet legislators push artificial and intrusive tactics to shame women, disrespecting doctors and patients (required viewings of fetal ultrasounds, heartbeat amplifications, mandated descriptions of the fetus). We need to have conversations about where lines should be drawn, and those conversations often get tricky.
I am sure of this: Ransdell does not have university-wide support to publicly condemn Smith’s actions. When he says the incident’s been “dealt with properly, decisively and brought to a conclusion,” I question his ability to make that judgment. He does not speak for this employee, grad student and alumni of WKU, and countless others are disappointed and alarmed by his behavior. When the university pressures a student or faculty member for Constitutionally protected free speech, do you know how difficult it becomes to sign my name to this very letter and tell the most powerful man on campus he couldn’t be more wrong?
WKU alum and employee