Tori Fisher / Gavel Media

Do We Have a Voice? Free Speech at Boston College

Historically, college campuses have been the sites of a wide array of demonstrations and protests. Dating back to the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s with student protests at the University of California, Berkeley, America’s universities have fostered a new breed of young, passionate, and educated activists dedicated to a wide range of social issues—a diverse group whose efforts have been met with varying degrees of acceptance.

Today’s college students have perpetuated this legacy, taking highly politicized subjects—including, but not limited to, sexual health, environmental awareness, LGBTQ rights, gender equality, and racial equality—head-on and facing similar mainstream reception to their parent-aged predecessors.

A recent article in The Economist weighs the differences between the intentions of student activists and the opinions of their critics. Dispelling the belief of some who “just think the kids got upset and had a fit,” the article addresses on-campus demonstrations at elite universities like Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Missouri as both reflections of wide-ranging social issues and producers of ideas and individuals that catalyze larger change. In the words of Eshe Sherley, a Yale student activist, “Things that happen in the university don’t just stay there.”

In bringing up a range of social justice matters that have warranted student action in recent years, opening the discussion with feminist and sexuality movements before transitioning into efforts advocating racial justice like the Black Lives Matter movement, the article addresses the social responsibility students feel to not remain silent in the face of injustice.

At Boston College, an institution that prides itself on shaping men and women for others, social responsibility is an ever-present talking point in class discussion and throughout campus as a whole. Eagles get involved through UGBC initiatives or by joining groups that cater to the causes they feel most passionate about, including Climate Justice and Eradicate BC Racism among dozens of others.

Students demanding more inclusive curriculums, cultural awareness training for faculty, more diverse faculty, and more programs for minority students have become commonplace on college campuses, including BC’s. Such demands manifest themselves in multitudinous ways and are met with varying levels of acceptance; at Princeton, for example, students organized to persuade administration to rename the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs as not to honor a segregationist president.

While administrators met these requests to some extent—not renaming the Woodrow Wilson School but instead removing a mural of him in a Princeton dining hall, for example—student demonstrators are often less than satisfied with the outcomes of their work on an institutional level. At the same time, administrators and critics of student organizers often discredit their efforts as the effects of coddling and an increasingly sensitive young adult generation.

“I would say the response to our work is generally a mixed bag,” Delia Ridge Creamer, MCAS ’16 and member of Climate Justice and Eradicate BC Racism, said. “There are students and faculty who are supportive actively and people have joined us after seeing our work. There are people that think there is a right time and a place for activism and that disrupting campus isn't okay so they don't necessarily support us.”

Students are sometimes punished or threatened by administrators for protests deemed “disruptive” to the campus community, a consequence that hit close to home this past December when students with the Eradicate Boston College Racism movement were issued conduct violations after a peaceful demonstration in which students sang Christmas carols reworded to address the institutional racism on campus.

This raises a different issue among American universities: to what degree can students exercise free speech? At BC, student activists Kwesi Aaron, MCAS ’16, Connor Kratz, MCAS ’18, and Creamer all noted that administration has the power to ultimately choose and censor the ways students demonstrate. As Creamer noted, getting demonstrations approved by the university is a complicated process filled with many forms and meetings, and students are not allowed to post fliers on campus unless they are a registered student group.

“Though some administrators support the goals of many of our causes as students, they are restrained by the bureaucratic hierarchy of the university,” Kratz, a UGBC Student Assembly Senator passionate about fostering a better community for LGBTQ students and bringing awareness to issues of mental health, sexual health, and racial justice on campus, said. “We are usually able to work with administrators to determine which of our goals are feasible, however there are also times where are efforts are ultimately rejected.”

Aaron, a leading member of Eradicate BC Racism and supporter of Climate Justice, has experienced similar roadblocks. While Eradicate faced unique challenges because, according to Aaron, “the school has been diametrically opposed to the group, it's name, and the suggestion that BC suffers from institutional racism,” he attributes BC’s strict regulations on student advocacy to the efficacy and strength of past protests, which the university learned from and then created a plan for containing on-campus demonstrations.

“By making us register for protests, they decide the manner in which we can express ourselves,” Aaron said. “They censor the messages to suit what they believe is appropriate. They use rules and supposed rule-breaking as a means of making the conversation about our legitimacy or lack thereof instead of about the issues at hand.”

College activists experience backlash from their peers as well. Aaron, Creamer, and Kratz all recognized that though most student demonstrations are well-received, general apathy among the largely-privileged student body toward issues that may not directly affect them is a challenge for those trying to make change. This creates a stigma around student activism that is sometimes hard to bend.

“I believe part of the issue with BC's student body in particular is that many of our students are very privileged and take little interest in changing the status quo,” Kratz said, “and it's much easier for someone at BC to criticize others for expressing their beliefs than to engage in thoughtful dialogue and understand the actual experiences of our marginalized students.”

Ultimately, student activists’ impact on their collegiate community depends on whether or not their voices are being heard so that their demands can be met. Creamer expressed that with the help of outlets like on campus journalism, Climate Justice has become known and recognized in the BC community.

“Overall during my four years being a member of CJBC I think a lot has changed, but there's a lot more that can be done,” Creamer said. “Our voices are starting to be heard more and it seems like the campus stigma towards activism is fading so that's been exciting to see.”

Aaron sees the lack of action on the administrative front to combat racism within the university as a result of a larger system at play. In comparing BC to a business that aims to please wealthy, white families, he expresses that changes to the current system wouldn’t do much for the customers. Frustrated with the monetary cost of influence at BC, Aaron sees non-financial efforts toward fundamental change as “a vain and exhausting pursuit that has thus far only led to a marathon of superficial gradualism.”

“To address the contentious issues that Eradicate brings to the table would be to threaten these major benefactors, present and future, who they rely on to fund their expensive projects and operations,” Aaron said. “It's not wrong to cater to donors, but there is no mechanism through which those without a great deal of money, or a great deal of numbers (like black students) can influence decisions, because NOT addressing our concerns is more financially expedient.”

Although he, too, is dissatisfied with the slow pace at which change is made at BC, Kratz is hopeful for what’s to come.

“Change certainly hasn't come as fast as we've needed it to, however we are making progress in the ways that are possible,” Kratz said. “I'm very confident and appreciative of all the hard-working student advocates at BC who are making a difference in their own ways every day on the BC campus, and are not easily deterred. I have high hopes and goals for many of our campus causes in the upcoming year.”

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