On Tuesday, Sept. 26, the Young Americans for Liberty (YAL), an organization at USM designed to inform students of the economy and their constitutional rights, arrived to Shoemaker Square at 11 a.m. With the Mississippi state flag, Don’t Tread on Me rainbow flag, Born to be Free Confederate flag, markers and an 8×8 free speech beach ball in their hands, six members of the Young Americans for Liberty stunned and puzzled the student body as they challenged USM’s policies on freedom of speech.
Vice president of the USM chapter of YAL, YAL state chair for Mississippi, Tennesse and West Virginia and senior history pre-law major Hunter Richardson said that the event has been planned for weeks.
“Currently, the university can regulate what you can say outside of the free speech zones, so technically we can be asked to leave or even be arrested [for protesting outside of three free speech zones],” Richardson said.
Richardson also said that YAL had notified the USM Police Department, who are usually present during on-campus protests, of their plans. However, officers did not arrive until later in the afternoon.
Surrounded by multiple tabling events and fountain construction workers, the demonstration began slowly. However, once a wave of students began to enter the Square during the lunch hour, the Young Americans for Liberty attracted attention with their state and rainbow flags flailing in unison.
Savannah Wise, freshman physics major and outreach director of YAL, provided the state flag and Don’t Tread on Me rainbow flags.
During the YAL’s time of protest, Wise could be seen explaining to curious students and faculty the meaning of the Don’t Tread on Me rainbow flag. Summarizing the lengthy history of the flag she was most fascinated with, Wise said, “The original meaning of it I feel like I am certainly behind and other people could get behind if they knew the original meaning of it: If you infringe on my rights, I’m going to defend my rights.”
Once the beach ball had been filled with air, members of YAL were able to persuade onlookers to participate in the protest by taking a black marker to write whatever they desired on the ball. Messages included “Take the Knee,” a reference to the recent protests held by NFL athletes, “Black Lives Matter,” “Love Trumps Hate” and “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of prejudice! #F***theconfederateflag.”
Throughout the YAL’s time in Shoemaker Square, the protest remained peaceful with the exception of one brief incident involving an unnamed student. The student snatched the state flag out of YAL member freshman recording industry production major Jacob Floyd’s hands and threw it to the ground. Richardson informed the student that he committed assault, a misdemeanor in Mississippi.
The Mississippi state flag, infamous for its incorporation of the Confederate emblem, appeared to be the topic of many conversations as YAL traveled from Shoemaker Square to outside the doors of Power House with the flags and beach ball.
Imani Harris, junior public relations major and black studies minor, thought that YAL was sending mixed messages. “I believe that everyone does have the right to express themselves freely through their speech. . . but it seems like a conflict of interest to be carrying Confederate flags while advocating for free speech because that is an oppressive symbol,” Harris said. “As a black woman, walking from my class, all I saw was the flags, and I was like ‘Oh here we go. They need to be at the Sunday rally.’ “
The USM Delta Flaggers, a group of state flag supporters, appear at the front of campus every Sunday afternoon. The flaggers have been protesting since university president Rodney Bennett made the decision to stop flying the state flag in fall of 2015.
Graduate social work student Jess Whatley was in Shoemaker Square tabling on behalf of The School of Social Work in an effort to register students to vote when she saw the YAL and thought of the flaggers. “I think it’s important that we defend free speech. There is a difference, however, between free speech and inflammatory speech.” Whatley went on to say that she had spent the previous day reviewing death threats that had been given to students from the flaggers. “At some level, safety has to be ensured.”
According to USM Policy STUA-UNA-012, regulated free speech zones are how safety is achieved. On the Hattiesburg campus, there are five designated zones: Weathersby Lawn, Union Plaza, Kennard-Washington Hall, Centennial Lawn and the most popular option, Shoemaker Square.
Tavish Kelly, previous Mississippi state chair for YAL said active events like theirs aid students to spread their political ideas articulately. “This event is all about free speech. We’re combatting the fact that our speech code on campus doesn’t fully overlap with the First Amendment, and according to the Supreme Court it should.”
However, students outside of the Liberal Arts Building disagreed with Kelly. One of those students was Cara Jourdan, junior criminal justice major, who could be heard debating the organization’s desire to travel outside of the free speech zone with Kelly as a crowd quickly surfaced around them for 30 minutes. Kelly’s main argument being, “We have to protect speech we don’t agree with.”
Jourdan argued against expanding free speech zones to Kelly, citing that she felt harassed by weekly protests held at the fountain. “They say that we are sluts, that we are just terrible people if we’re gay, lesbian, whatever. They make all these assumptions about us, and they make us feel unsafe. They make us feel uncomfortable, and they obstruct our education because not only do so many people have to walk past the fountain to get to their classes, you can even hear those a**holes in the f***-ing library.”
The YAL’s event ended 10 minutes before their anticipated closing time of 1 p.m. due to the campus police receiving a call for disturbing the peace. Officers escorted the group back to Shoemaker Square.
The Young Americans for Liberty say they will continue to make contact with university officials regarding the free speech zones. The Young Americans for Liberty hold meetings weekly in the Thad Cochran Center room 228 at 6:30 p.m.
A gallery of the Young Americans for Liberty’s march is available here.