If you’re one of the thousands of students who attend classes on Eastern Michigan University's campus, chances are you’ve walked past the Free Speech Wall—also called the Wall of Speech or Free Speech Space.
This consists of two separate cement walls, as well as a cement column, between Pray-Harrold, Porter, and the Rec/IM. More recently, the graffiti has spread to the nearby sidewalks as well. Any student at EMU is welcome to use the Free Speech Wall to express themselves, their thoughts, and their opinions. At first glance, you might think that this is a very simple concept. However, the Free Speech Wall is actually a very important tool for teaching students about how free speech works in a controlled environment.
For example, there was recently some controversy on EMU Engage—a social media app made for those associated with the university—because one organization covered up the Sexual Assault and Rape Awareness organizations event information for their upcoming protest and wrote “remember to share the rock” on the wall.
The concept of sharing may have been done in good faith, but this actually teaches a very important lesson about the right to a platform. While everyone has a right to say what they want, they do not have a right to an audience or a platform. No one is forced to look at the wall, make space for you on the wall, or leave your message uncovered.
Additionally, this situation also teaches us a lesson about thinking about other people’s perspectives and how they may interpret our words before we say something. The organization SARA is protesting sexual assault on campus. So in this situation, many people found the covering of their information to be disrespectful to both the organization and the survivors they are fighting for.
While we cannot confirm the other organization’s intentions to be malicious, it is fair to say that more often than not, people will not wait for you to clarify what your intentions with your words are. This is why words are so powerful, and at times, harmful as well. People can take them in ways you never even thought they could’ve been interpreted as.
The third lesson I think this situation teaches is that an open dialogue can bring together a community, even when there is a difference in opinion.
Those who painted over SARA’s protest information apologized, the president of their organization apologized, and they offered SARA materials to redo the wall with their information. Additionally, SARA spoke to them about their mission and how they can both work to be actively anti-sexual assault. Being able to speak to each other maturely and have a discussion is part of what makes free speech so effective, as is demonstrated by these two groups.
This is just one example of a situation sparked by the Free Speech Wall, and although it may have started with contention, I think it shows how important truly understanding the power of our words is. And outside of the Wall—on social media, at our jobs—your messages can’t just be painted over. It isn’t just seen by those passing by or a few on Engage. Your words can really affect people. It can affect your life. Your livelihood. It is so important to understand how to express yourself thoughtfully.
So with that, I would encourage you to take advantage of the Free Speech Wall. It is fun. It is empowering. It benefits our community and us, as individuals, to learn from it. As we all grow into adults and enter prospective fields, it is so important to understand the power of free speech and the importance of self expression.