The University of Denver just sent a shocking message to its student body, effectively declaring that no individual on campus has the right to anonymous free speech. In a drastic response to free speech activism on campus, administrators have installed security cameras, which will provide 24 hour surveillance of the school’s free speech wall.
Over the last several years, it has become popular for student activists to defend their First Amendment rights by instituting, “free speech” walls on their respective campuses. On these designated walls, students are allowed to express themselves freely without fear of repercussion from campus administrators. Free speech walls have created a peaceful means of expressing one’s beliefs and protesting the administrative crackdown on First Amendment rights, which has been occurring with more frequency on campuses across the country.
While the University of Denver Administration has generally been supportive of the wall, recent comments painted by students have caused the school some concern. When lyrics from the punk band, Minor Threat, were found on the wall, faculty members misconstrued the lyrics as being racist and decided that it was time to install a surveillance camera in order deter hateful speech.
While prejudice speech should not be praised, the situation at hand seems like a dramatic action to take against the entire student body, especially since the lyrics themselves were taken out of context. Students attending the University of Denver do not deserve to be punished collectively by having their First Amendment rights constantly monitored.
Unfortunately for the administration, the right to free and anonymous speech has been affirmed numerous times by the United States Supreme Court. In the 1995 case of McIntyre v. Ohio Election Commission, the court upheld the right to anonymously exercise ones right to free speech and expression by saying:
“Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.”
The administration at the University of Denver issued a statement defending their decision saying:
“Students or organizations are encouraged to identify themselves in the message. We expect our community to stand behind their words and art; anonymity does not allow for dialogue and allows one to disrupt community standards without facing the impact and accountability of their work.”
Apparently, the campus administration is unaware that the right to express oneself anonymously is deeply woven into our country’s founding history. When our nation’s Framers were debating the merits of the proposed United States Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison anonymously published the Federalist Papers in support of the document.
Using the alias, Publius, the three men authored 85 pamphlets, each published anonymously. These documents sparked such a widespread and provocative dialogue among early Americans, they inspired the creation of a completely separate set of pamphlets known today as the Anti-Federalist Papers. Also published anonymously, these competing pamphlets brought the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention into the homes of the common American and provided the knowledge necessary for a constructive dialogue.
The First Amendment’s primary reason for existing is to protect every individual’s right to freely express themselves, regardless of the content. While individuals and communities can and should be promoting uplifting forms of speech and expression, these rights exist to protect even the most unpopular forms.
The president of the University of Michigan echoed this sentiment and summed up the entire situation perfectly by saying:
“I have absolutely no idea as to how to prevent one person with hate in their heart from posting a poster in a building of a public university… We’re not going to turn the University of Michigan into a police state where there are people and cameras everywhere you look and you’ll never have a private moment. Because that’s what it would take to prevent hateful posters by one sick and mean and terrible person to hurt all of us.”