secret_history (2006-41)

Speak Out

An interesting experiment in free speech on UT’s campus

by Jack Neely

Last Wednesday’s event had been announced in press releases, on a couple of websites, and in ads in the Daily Beacon . I’d heard about it, and biked down to the University Center, expecting a crowd.

At a table were Mike Fitzgerald, veteran political-science professor, and Nissa Dahlin-Brown, of the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy, and four student volunteers. A sign said, in big black letters, SPEAK OUT!

It was an opportunity to say anything you want in public, with a microphone and amplified loudspeaker, and some semblance of an audience, provided.

Dahlin-Brown likened it to Speaker’s Corner, the spot in London’s Hyde Park where, by ancient custom, speakers are never harassed by the authorities.

It was a lovely day, sunny and warm, a good day, you’d think, to speak out. And it was an ideal place.

The UC’s front plaza has a dramatic history. In the spring of 1970, thousands gathered there daily cheering speeches against the Vietnam War. Rival speakers struggled for the podium. There were long lists. Students spoke for hours, and thousands stayed and listened, often cheering. After the Cambodia bombing and the subsequent Kent State shootings, it was here, before a cheering crowd of 5,000, that student-government president Jimmie Baxter called for a student strike, and where popular history professor Richard Marius, counseled moderation, and where the doomed political folksinger and provocateur Phil Ochs performed an impromptu concert of protest songs.

Later still, around 1978, some Muslim students chose this plaza to denounce the Shah of Iran and his military police. “Death to the Shah, U.S. Puppet!” They didn’t draw such big crowds, but there was destiny and perhaps insight in their complaints about the shah and his secret police. Students crossing the UC plaza knew about the enthusiasm for the Ayatollah Khomeini long before his coup was front-page news.

To the organizers of last Wednesday’s event, it seemed a propitious time. A controversial war, a big election, a major university. Something’s going to happen.

Just after noon, the classes changed, and students began walking through by the dozens. There was a basket of candy to attract pedestrians.

The sign and treats didn’t take any immediate effect. Students walked by singly and in clumps, hardly glancing over at the table. Then, like a carnival barker, Fitzgerald tried to target likely passersby.

“Is there something you’d like to get off your chest?” Fitzgerald asked a conservatively dressed young man.

“I’ve got a cold I want to get off my chest,” replied the young man, who continued walking toward the law school.

One, with hippie hair, said “That’s cool!” He paused, as if maybe he was tempted. “But I gotta go translate Sanskrit.”

One of the volunteers was Wes Boling, outgoing young journalism major and sometime Daily Beacon columnist. He followed Fitzgerald with more specific goading.

A young man in a UT ball cap walked by. “Who are you for, Corker or Ford?” Boling asked.

“Bryson!” the boy responded.

Unfazed by the Vol fan’s unexpected shift in races, Boling asked, “OK, tell us why you’re voting for Bryson!” The boy mumbled and resumed his walk.

A couple of students who had been watching curiously drifted away. The volunteers were starting to look discouraged. Admittedly, it’s tough for a perfectly sober person to think of something to say on a loudspeaker to a random group.

Finally a middle-aged woman who had the bold look of an activist about her got up.

Unshyly, she said the Mental Health Association was having an event on the other side of the UC. She invited people on this side of the UC to go to the other side. She didn’t say anything for or against mental health, but promised something about free backrubs.

Inviting the skimpy audience to a rival event wasn’t the sort of free speech the Speak Out people had in mind, but the lady didn’t break any rules.

Boling got up and gave an impassioned speech. He mentioned that there was a war on, and allowed that people might be for it or against it.

“If you’re not informed, it might not be a good idea to cast your vote.”

Fitzgerald followed, trying to provoke some sort of reaction. “A free people won’t thrive if people 18 to 24 years old don’t pay attention!”

A couple of students slowed down and glanced at the speaker, as they might if they had spotted an unfamiliar dog.

“We summon you today to accept your responsibilities in the same way that young men and women go to fight for their government. Play your part, offer your voices. Commit yourself to something larger than yourself.”

Hundreds passed. Few stopped, or even paused.

Finally, one young man in shorts, a UT jersey and a Mets cap ambled over and stepped onto the platform.

“Vote for Jim Bryson, he’s a really cool guy,” he said into the microphone. He started to get down, but the volunteers, perhaps concerned that this might be the only earnest free-speaker at the University of Tennessee today, pleaded for him to elaborate.

“I think he’ll be a good governor. He adopted some children from Russia. And I’m friends with his daughter, Maria. She’s pretty cool, too.” Encouraged to stay and keep speaking, he elaborated, “What’s the deal with homework? You’re not working on your home!” He added, “That’s thanks to Jerry Seinfeld. UT’s gonna beat Georgia this weekend. They’re gonna kill ‘em.” With that, he stepped down.

The volunteers at the table did register about 20 students to vote. Dahlin-Brown says research indicates that UT political-science undergrads are two-thirds Republican. Others mutter that UT students are about three-thirds apathetic.

But UT students care a great deal about some things. The night before, about 1,000 lined up to see Bill Nye, a celebrity to a generation as “Bill Nye, the Science Guy” on TV in the ’90s, far too many for the UC auditorium. More than 100 sat in the nearby Shiloh Room, watching the TV star’s talk on closed-circuit TV.

In some ways, 2006 seems a great deal like 1970. We’re in a controversial and seemingly hopeless war in a third-world country. But there are a couple of big differences. For now, no UT student will have to join the fighting unless he or she wants to. That one fact was sharply different 36 years ago.

Today, a war is something that might be on TV above the bar during happy hour.

But there may be an even bigger difference between 1970 and 2006. Of the hundreds who passed, maybe a third were talking on cell phones. A large number of others wore iPod earplugs.

It wasn’t that they ever made a conscious decision not to volunteer, or to listen. Most just didn’t notice.

Students of other eras didn’t have as many choices as students today do. They had to listen.