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A spirit that is not afraid

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Concourse display exploits tragedy for shock value, political gain

<p>Auburn students and faculty walk past a Pro-Life demonstration on the Auburn University Haley Concourse on March 29, 2022.</p>

Auburn students and faculty walk past a Pro-Life demonstration on the Auburn University Haley Concourse on March 29, 2022.

I wish Auburn would stop proving me right. I have often complained of Auburn University’s seemingly indifferent approach to student well-being, but every so often, I am filled with hesitant hope as the school is presented with an opportunity to put its students first.  

I’m always disappointed.

You were unlikely to have missed the anti-abortion display on the Haley Concourse on Monday, March 28. The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, a radical anti-abortion group, was invited to campus by Students for Life. The group set up a display on the concourse which compared abortion to genocide, showing graphic images of genocides including victims of lynchings, the Holocaust, the Battle of Wounded Knee and the Rwandan genocide.

These images were juxtaposed with images of fetuses. Students received no warning about the display other than a sign reading “Warning: Genocide Images” which was placed in an area where the display was already clearly visible.

Black students should not be forced to look at lynching victims on their way to class.

Jewish students should not have to stare at ditches filled with victims of Nazi gas chambers.

Indigenous students should not be forced to see a famous massacre of their ancestors.

Rwandan and other African students should not have to relive the horrors of a genocide that occurred just 28 years ago.

Campus should be a place where every student feels safe, not where you are shoved in front of symbols of your culture’s collective trauma while getting your morning coffee.  These images were not educating students on the horrors of these genocides but rather exploiting these tragedies for shock value and political gain.  

The display also included insensitive language about sexual assault, transphobic content, and images purposely targeting students who have experienced miscarriage or abortion.  Altogether, this display exploited the trauma of almost every minority group on campus.

The University has a long history of dismissing the concerns of minority students and survivors of sexual assault.

Then, it dawned on me. The graphic display was positioned directly in front of the Auburn University Early Learning Center. During the week, before 3 p.m., the daycare is mostly filled with children, preschool-aged and younger, who are certainly too young to be exposed to the imagery on the concourse.  

So, I set off on a journey to get this display moved away from the daycare. I emailed Campus Safety and Security and Student Affairs regarding the move. After receiving an automated response from Campus Safety, I called their office and was rerouted to Susan McCallister, Director of Campus Safety and Compliance.

She told me that the University would not move the display, because the organization responsible “had gone through all the proper channels.” 

She assured me, however, that the director of the daycare was keeping the kids inside to avoid the display. Toddlers were not allowed to play outside on a beautiful day because it would inconvenience adults who are visitors on this campus.  

Hours later, I received a reply from Student Affairs which patronizingly declared that “Freedom of speech and diversity of ideas are at the foundation of higher education… The university has specific guidelines in place to prevent students from being harassed.”  

I was not the only student to receive this email. It was sent to every student who had reported the display’s inappropriate location. The response ended with, “If you wish to share concerns with the student organization that sponsored the display on campus today, the student contact for Students for Life is [name],” and provided the email of the president of the organization.

The irony of boasting the school’s guidelines to prevent student harassment and then directing students to harass a student organization president instead of the University was completely lost on the Office of Student Affairs.

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To be clear, I will not be including the president’s name or contact information because they should not be harassed over this incident.

The University must bear full responsibility for the display.

To get permission for an outside group to demonstrate on the Haley Concourse, a student organization must provide information about the group and the event plan. 

All Student Involvement had to do was take one look at the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform’s website or social media to see how extreme their approach is. The decision to allow the group on campus was either one of indifference or incompetence.

Either way, when the University realized that disturbing content was being placed in front of its daycare and its students, they should have at the very least moved the display further down the concourse, away from the daycare. Auburn should also apologize to its students for allowing such behavior on campus.

I agree that “freedom of speech and diversity of ideas are at the foundation of higher education,” but only when that speech is respectful and productive.

That display was neither.

There is no reason that students need to be harassed and campus functions need to be disturbed like they were on Monday, consequences which the University demonstration guidelines clearly seek to avoid. People advocate for controversial ideas on Auburn’s campus all the time without this level of backlash because they are respectful of the campus and the students on it. Auburn University can find a way to allow for free expression and demonstration and protect the well-being of its students if only it tries.  

But, this week, the University didn’t try.

Joelle Woggerman is a junior studying biochemistry at Auburn University. 

The opinions expressed in columns and letters represent the views and opinions of their individual authors. 

These opinions do not necessarily reflect the Auburn University student body, faculty, administration or Board of Trustees.

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