Free speech on display amid campus demonstrations


Student activists chant during the counter protest to national anti-abortion group, Created Equal’s demonstration outside Whitehall Classroom building on Thursday, October 19, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Bailey Vandiver

Demonstrators and counter-protesters practiced free speech on UK’s campus on Thursday.

Created Equal, a national anti-abortion group based in Columbus, Ohio, had signs, a video screen and representatives in front of Whitehall. 

Several hours after the group arrived, students, including members of the UK Feminist Alliance and other organizations, gathered to protest.

Seth Gadbois, a member of the Feminist Alliance executive board, said the counter-demonstration had been planned the night before. 

Some protesters questioned whether the anti-abortion group’s message should be considered free speech.

Adrianne Rogers, an environmental science senior, was seen hitting one of the anti-abortion group’s signs, which depicted graphic images the group said were of abortions.

Rogers said she could not believe the demonstration by the anti-abortion group was allowed to happen on campus.

“Because this isn’t really free speech. This is hate speech,” Rogers said.

UK Police Captain Bill Webb spoke to Rogers after she pushed the sign.

“No matter how we feel about what they’re saying and what they’re displaying, it’s their right to be here,” the captain said.

UK spokesman Jay Blanton confirmed this: Created Equal was within its rights to be at that location.

Blanton said that because of a new administrative regulation passed last year, most of UK’s campus is considered “open, free public space.” 

Though there are some exceptions, most groups do not have to notify UK if they plan to set up outdoors.

Blanton said that even though it was not required to, Created Equal notified UK event management via letter several weeks ago.

“This organization went above and beyond what the administrative regulation requires,” Blanton said.

Blanton said what happened displayed exactly what free speech is on a college campus.

“What you saw is a demonstration of what free speech is about,” Blanton said. “You had a group that wanted to speak out about a public policy issue in this country, and you had others show up who wanted to make their voices heard.”

He said it was “largely a public and civil discourse,” from what he understood.

Journalism professor Kakie Urch was on her way to teach a class when she passed the protest. She said that while the anti-abortion display groups come every year, she has never personally seen counter-protesters.

She said there were “a lot of people” protesting with Planned Parenthood placards, for example.

“Then there were a great number of students and faculty and staff watching free speech happen,” she said.

She said that in the few minutes she was there, she did not see anyone who stepped beyond free speech to something that would not be protected by the First Amendment.

“As a journalism professor, I’m a great supporter of free speech and free images that make us uncomfortable. Period,” Urch said.