Jena 6 protests show power of free speech

In an often all-too-cynical political atmosphere we face today, it was heartening to see students on campus take part in the nationwide Jena 6 protest Sept. 20. Regardless of where one stands on the controversial issue itself, there is merit in utilizing the First Amendment appropriately and effectively — which is exactly what UK students did.

Following a period of elevated racial tension in a Louisiana high school, six black students assaulted a single white student, resulting in the arrest of the individuals now being referred to as “the Jena 6.” In the time that has followed, several protests like the one on UK’s campus have sought to draw attention to what protesters claim are unfairly severe, and racially motivated charges ranging from second degree assault to attempted murder, according to a Kernel article on Sept. 21.

The racially sensitive nature of the case has been at the heart of the protests. Delta Sigma Theta Secretary Kimber Hatton said in the article that the case was “racial injustice (and) charged from the get go.” In support of this and similar claims, several students exercised their First Amendment rights of petition and assembly as they gathered outside the Student Center to protest and sign a petition to release the six students charged.

While there are obviously multiple sides to this case, it has at least caused many college students to shrug off their trademark political apathy. And it seems their efforts could be working.

On Sept. 1, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana overturned the conviction of Mychal Bell, who was the first student tried and was convicted of aggravated battery, according to the Kernel article.

Students all across the country should take notice of this event and realize that they could use the same influence exercised here in any controversy. Regardless of the specific stance one takes on the Jena 6, it is still a stunning example of grassroots activism among our nation’s youth and a reminder that protests can do more than just create noise: They can incite significant change.