On UK’s campus, where opinions are encouraged, free speech gets sticky

Pro-Life Wildcats created anti-abortion chalk drawings on a sidewalk leading towards the Gatton Student Center on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2018, in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Arden Barnes

Arden Barnes

When Thomas Smith decided to call UKPD, the damage had already been done.

An outraged student had poured water on anti-abortion chalk drawings written on a sidewalk leading up to the Gatton Student Center. Smith, a member of the Pro-Life Wildcats, the group that made the anti-abortion chalk drawings, felt that the student was violating their right to free expression on campus.

Lidya Azad, the student later identified as the one tossing water, felt that she was expressing her right to free speech by pouring water on the chalked sidewalk.

In a video provided to the Kernel, Azad poured more water on the chalk drawings. 

“If it’s your free speech to do this,” Azad said in the video, referring to the chalk, “then it’s also my free speech to do this,” she said as she poured more water onto the politically tinged sidewalk. 

Azad originally refused to give her last name to a Kernel reporter, but joined a prominent write-in SGA ticket the next day.

Both the Pro-Life Wildcats and opposing students believed that they were expressing their right to free expression but both also thought their right was being impeded.

According to the UK Student Code of Conduct, students have “the right to engage in discussion, to exchange thought and opinion, to speak, write, or print freely on any subject…”

UKPD officers were present on the scene after the Pro-Life Wildcats called them. They also filed a report with police, but the outcome of that report is not known. 

Azad sent a statement to the Kernel after the event, saying she feels it is her duty to defend her freedom and fight for marginalized groups.

“I am a junior at the University of Kentucky,” Azad wrote in the statement. “It is my duty to fight for my freedom. It is my duty as a (genderqueer) womxn affected by reproductive justice to defend and advocate for reproductive justice (including but not limited to pro-choice legislation and bodily autonomy). It is also my duty to protect womxn from harmful, hateful, and triggering speech and legislation. I have been thanked by students who have explicitly told me that these chalk speech and drawings have harmed them.”  

The Pro-Life Wildcats have attempted to chalk the sidewalk in the past, Sophia Decker, the club’s president, told the Kernel.

“Since this was an attack on our free speech we wanted to just show that even if we’re being attacked for free speech, it’s still important we have free speech,” she said.

Other students felt that the sidewalk display was disconcerting.

“Voice your opinion, I just don’t like seeing that all over the sidewalk because as a woman it feels violating,” said Juliet Bonci, a sophomore theatre major who was passing the chalk drawings after eating lunch in the student center. “I know not every woman feels like that but personally I feel violated about all this stuff telling me my body is not something I have control over. It’s frustrating.” 

If a student feels that their free speech was impeded, they may report it to student affairs for review. The handbook states, “UK will endeavor, however, to balance students’ rights to free speech with other students’ rights to be free from threats and harassment.” 

Pro-Life Wildcats first created the chalk drawings in the evening earlier in February, hoping their message would be seen in the morning as students walked past. The group began drawing at 6:30 p.m. and a student, identified as Azad, was started speaking to them from a bridge above them. Decker said she couldn’t quite make out what she was saying.

Decker said she went to check the drawings on her way to class around 7:30 a.m. the next morning and saw that their work had been “vandalized to the point it was completely illegible… it was completely defaced,” she said.

On Facebook, Azad shared a post from a member of the Pro-life Wildcats group showing the smudged drawings.


After the first set of drawings were erased, the group decided to chalk the sidewalk again on Feb. 26, but to do it during the day with members of the group taking shifts to monitor the drawings, Decker said.

Decker said the idea of a university is a place where ideas can be exchanged.

“People can talk about ideas, that’s what classes are for, that’s what spaces outside of classes are for so I think it is very important that in public spaces students express their beliefs or opinions or whatever they think about different issues,” she said. 

The group applied for and received a permit for chalking from John Herbst, Executive Director of the Gatton Student Center, said UK spokesperson Jay Blanton.

Most university areas are open for the use of free speech areas with the exception of areas that impede traffic to classrooms or high-traffic walkways, he said.

“Generally speaking, most areas of campus are open with respect to free speech,” Blanton said.

Editor’s note: The story originally said that a student, originally identified as Azad, was filming the group and yelling incoherently the first time the Pro-Life Wildcats chalked the sidewalk. The story has been corrected to say that Decker said she saw Azad speaking but couldn’t understand what she was saying.