Owen Lavine is a journalism sophomore and Mustang News opinion columnist. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
On February 1st, 2021 the anti-abortion student group Students for Life organized a protest on Dexter Lawn. The protestors planted pink crosses in the grass, each of which represented an aborted fetus. This quickly drew a counter-protest from pro-abortion students –– heavy words were exchanged, people got angry and debates were sparked. Some people began stomping the crosses and throwing them in the trash.
Recently, this issue was reignited by ASI presidential candidate Jake Zylstra who said during the ASI Presidential Debate “a club called Students For Life had a tabling event on Dexter lawn, their signs and crosses were vandalized. They were attacked … because they have a differing viewpoint.”
This begs the question: if the crosses are political speech, are the people throwing them away and destroying them infringing on the protestors freedom of speech or are they simply counter-protestors expressing their own speech?
How can something like this event ever match closely enough with a case that has an applicable precedent? In a country with 330 million people and constant political and protest activity, the idea of Heckler’s Veto seems to encompass the issue of property destruction as protest.
The Heckler’s Veto essentially states that it is illegal to suppress another person’s freedom of speech through violent or disorderly means. This precedent comes out of a case where the arrest of civil rights protesters in Chicago was overturned. The court ruled that the arrest of the protesters was a Heckler’s Veto and prevented their free speech.
In late 2020, an almost identical event to the one on our campus happened at the University of North Texas, where anti-abortion protesters planted pink flags into the ground in a similar fashion to the pink crosses. One student was cited for theft as a result of taking flags, but the university did not pursue any first amendment violations on the premise of the Heckler’s Veto. Their reasoning was that the protest was semi-permitted and they technically didn’t have the right to protest to begin with.
What this boils down to from a legal perspective is whether Students for Life had a permit to protest, which they did.
What is legal and what is moral does not always intersect. While the actions of these pro-life protestors are not violent in of themselves, their outcomes are. The banning of abortion is a violent act. The counter protestors’ actions, despite being disorderly, were warranted in this situation as they were working to suppress the spread of what they deemed to be violence. This act of counter-protest isn’t best characterized as a ‘Heckler’s Veto’ but rather — a riot.
The connotation of what a riot is needs to change. A riot, defined by the legendary Martin Luther King Jr., is “the language of the unheard.” Despite gaining suffrage almost a century ago, the female voice is still largely unheard in American politics. When groups of largely male institutions (such as Students for Life) make decisions over what happens to women’s bodies, their voices go unheard.
Most recently, the male dominated Supreme Court essentially overturned Roe V Wade. There is no way to get into the ears of Supreme Court Justices –– they dictate our lives from their ivory towers. However, groups like Students for Life, who support anti-abortion justices like Amy Coney Barrett, become conduits for people to express their grievances with the court.
With little to no avenue to express discontent with the functions of an elite organization of lawmakers, people will inevitably turn towards violence and illegal expressions of discontent. A riot should be understood, but not endorsed.
Polling has shown that following riots during the 1960s civil rights protests and the riots that happened following the George Floyd protests in 2020, popularity among both movements fell.
Optically, if social justice advocates are to win in the US, we need to become more cognizant of the actions we take to protest. If we are to affect change, nonviolence is the only way to be successful.
Hence why figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King have become moral leaders despite themselves being wildly unpopular in their day amongst the reactionaries they fought against. A riot is an expression of protest that the status quo finds improper, but the status quo should never be an arbiter as to what type of change is acceptable or not.