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SGA Plans New Zone For Free Expression

By Stephanie Fang Posted: 11/07/2011
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The 45th Legislature of the Student Government Association (SGA), in collaboration with University administrators, plans to implement a designated “free-expression zone” on campus next semester — tentatively in the rock garden space between the Dobbs University Center (DUC) and Cox Hall — in an effort to promote self-expression and community on campus.

“You can chalk the sidewalks around campus, but you have to reserve those,” College senior and SGA President Adam McCall, who is leading the initiative, explained. “Stuff on Dooley’s statue and Woodruff’s statue are taken down. Commercial, social and political messages are immediately taken down. You need a place where you can put all of that stuff up and not worry about any sort of consequences unless, of course, it’s hateful.”

McCall said he hopes the zone will be “unreservable,” meaning that any student group or individual has the right to utilize it for self-expression without having to first receive permission from the University.

College Dean of Students Bridget Guernsey Riordan noted that University administrators plan to move forward with the proposal, possibly by next semester, as soon as SGA is finished collecting research on free-expression zones at other institutions.

“One thing this campus really lacks is a place to come together and have free artistic expression,” McCall said. “Other campuses have rocks and statues to paint and write slogans on. The purpose [would be] to provide a place to incorporate space where groups can demonstrate and have free artistic and social expression.”

According to McCall, the idea arose following a Student and Workers in Solidarity (SWS) protest this past spring, during which demonstrators staged a sit-in on the University Quadrangle in an effort to terminate the University’s contract with its food vendor Sodexo. The protest eventually led to the arrest of seven for trespassing.

Two years ago, SGA attempted to designate the Cox Hall amphitheater as a free-expression zone, according to McCall. He remarked that the idea petered out because there wasn’t enough momentum to carry it forward.

“We need a place where we can protest in dissent from University government policy,” McCall noted. “After what happened in the spring, it was time to resurrect the idea because it demonstrated that there was a perceived need for it.”

University administrators — including Riordan and members of the University Master Plan Committee, which designates spaces for Campus Life departments — chose the area between the DUC and Cox Hall due to its central location on campus, Riordan said.

“We thought, ‘Where would be a good place if someone wanted a place on campus to talk openly?’” Riordan explained. “That space would be dedicated to anyone who has a topic they want to talk about.”

According to Associate Director of the Office of Student Leadership and Service Matt Garrett, who is working with SGA to benchmark similar zones at different universities, the venture will reinforce a sense of community on campus by encouraging student expression.

“I do believe that any time an institution openly states the value and importance of free expression and free speech zones, it makes a stronger sense of community because it signals to community members their concerns, voices and expressions are welcome,” he said.

Though she expressed enthusiasm for the project, Riordan also admitted to being concerned over the possibility of students putting up offensive material in the designated area, namely hate-motivated slogans or messages.

“Hate messages are always a concern,” Riordan noted. “That’s why we’ve stuck with reservable space [in the past] so we know what student organization was [putting up material] and we could hold people accountable. If you have unreservable space and someone does it, you don’t know how to hold that person accountable.”

College senior Cyrus Parlin disagrees with the free-expression endeavor, arguing that students are generally “apathetic when it comes to public expression.”

“I feel like people are more interested in playing small ball than tackling any broader issues,” Parlin said. “But I think that the few big displays that do get pulled off are often met with a certain amount of disdain ... such as protestors against [Sodexo], which a not insignificant portion of the student body raised their noses at.”

This apathy, he said, means that there is “no need” for such a space on campus as there have been very few controversial protests at Emory.

“Setting aside a zone just seems reactionary and sets up all further movements for either obscurity or persecution,” he commented. “I don’t think it would be some radical place where students feel comfortable expressing less popular ideas ... Plus, the whole damn campus should be a free expression zone.”

— Contact Stephanie Fang .

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