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First Amendment Battleground

Grad student Michael Dickinson recounts his persistent efforts to restore free speech at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In the fall of 2005 an exhibit sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) caused a major controversy when it came to Virginia Commonwealth University as part of a nationwide, 28-campus tour. Photographs depicted animals being used for experimental and testing purposes or slaughtered for their skins. Other images drew a correlation between animal abuse and the physical and emotional suffering endured by slaves and Native Americans during the early history of this country. Uptight students were enraged.

While PETA’s artistic comparison may have been offensive to a select group, the Student Government Association (SGA) felt it was offensive to all 30,000 VCU students and wasted no time publicly condemning PETA. A statement was issued, approved by the Student Senate, calling the animal activists’ presentation “insensitive, morally reprehensible and wrong.”

That edict was an assault on free speech, and the ripple effect has been staggering. Most noteworthy, The Commonwealth Times has stopped publishing political satire altogether, afraid of offending virtually anyone, especially politicians.

How could this happen at an American university, a supposed bastion of free speech? It happened because The Commonwealth Times is controlled by the SGA, whose 200 student members can be viewed like the Mafia. The SGA manages the draconian Student Activity Fee (approximately $200 per student), which is incorporated into tuition costs and earmarked for various campus organizations, including the media. In simple terms, The Commonwealth Times has no public accountability.

I wrote well-structured letters and editorials—some in the mode of HUSTLER’s own Asshole of the Month column—and sent them to the paper. I dealt with social issues, focusing on politicians. The Times’ editors were particularly offended at a joke I made about Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell—not only a big Pat Robertson supporter, but also a public figure who can be openly criticized in the form of editorial satire. The newspaper would not publish my missives, I was told, because they did not like what I was saying.

When I persevered, I was ignored—denied my right to exercise free and protected speech. School administrators told me that policies involving The Commonwealth Times were “student matters” and that they had no authority over them.

I filed a complaint with the Student Media Organization. I soon found this to be another fruitless endeavor. The SMO simply forwarded my complaint to the Student Media Commission, basically another name for SMO’s leaders. Sounds like the cronyism rampant in the Bush Administration, right? I quickly realized there was no hope of having my dispute addressed. Alas, none of my writings were published in The Commonwealth Times at that juncture.

But I wasn’t finished fighting for the right to tell people what they may not want to hear. When Commonwealth Times officials publicly told me to “shut the fuck up,” I went to war.

To initiate change, the student body had to become galvanized. I knew this could be a tough task in the conservative South, where young people are vastly undereducated when it comes to Constitutionally guaranteed rights. Still, I dug in.

At first only a few students joined the fight for free speech, because most knew nothing about the First Amendment. So I went radical. I announced to whomever would listen that free speech still exists! I contacted the Free Speech Coalition and received permission to open the organization’s first-ever student chapter—the Free Speech Foundation.

Since then, VCU has experienced a free speech revolution. Students have shown support for us, even in the face of opposition. (Unfortunately, some advocates have been intimidated and threatened.) While just three students showed up for the first FSF meeting, more than 60 attend regular gatherings these days. Campus rallies and information tables at community events have proven to be very popular.

Earlier this year I took my activism to the next level, running for office on a platform of “Free Speech and Student Media Reform.” I received 430 votes—enough to earn a seat on the same Student Senate that had condemned PETA and attacked the First Amendment!
Virginia has always been famous for Patrick Henry’s call, “Give me liberty or give me death.” As a fellow Virginian, I can now proudly proclaim that free speech still reigns in my home state and America…and that I’m still alive.

Michael Dickinson is pursuing a doctoral degree in public policy and administration at Richmond’s Virginia Commonwealth University. He became interested in First Amendment struggles as a high school freshman after reading an article about Larry Flynt.

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