George Carlin’s seven dirty words. Multiple references to metal band Slayer. A swastika.
Passers-by put all of those things and more up on large paper sheets hung at the two entrances to the Student Union and Recreation Center at Central Washington University on Monday.
Their drawings and writings weren’t always pretty, agreeable or even legible, but that was the point.
Organizers put up the free speech walls to give people a taste of how free expression works as part of CWU’s First Amendment week, which started Monday.
The week’s events include mock trials reenacting famous cases involving free speech laws, a “Marketplace of Ideas” for reflection on First Amendment freedoms and a keynote lecture from lawyer and civil rights columnist Glenn Greenwald late Monday afternoon.
Find all those nasty words on the free speech wall offensive? Don’t like Slayer? Tough luck, Greenwald said.
“Constitutional rights by their design are anti-democratic,” he said. “These rights are anti-democratic because what they’re designed to do is to tell not just the government, but the majority of citizens, that no matter how many of you favor a certain act, the Constitution says that you cannot do it.”
Greenwald covers topics such as economic discrimination in the justice system, the government’s treatment of whistleblowers, the threat of drones, privacy and due process. He regularly appears on television talk shows and was named one of the country’s top 10 opinion writers by Newsweek.
At its most topical, much of Greenwald’s speech focused on how the government has eroded constitutional rights under the banner of the war on terror, but the lecture’s larger theme revolved around how much effort and complexity goes into maintaining a free society.
It’s hard to convince people there’s any kind of debate over free expression — people never stand up and announce they’re against it, he said. People who attack free speech might not even know they’re doing it.
They might say they support free speech, except in what to them seems like a very specific circumstance, he said.
“What free speech actually means and what it’s designed to protect does not permit people to embrace those kinds of exceptions,” he said.
Nobody has the right to shield any idea as so sacred it can’t be challenged, he said. When reviewing the most significant ideas in human history, he said, almost all of them were challenges to some reigning orthodoxy, like Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the solar system or the Protestant Reformation.
“Almost all human progress is driven by people who stood up and said ‘I disagree’ with this idea that society at the time considered to be the most precious,” he said.
Students in CWU history professor Brian Carroll’s class are presenting examples of unpopular expression at three reenactments of famous free expression-related trials this week.
Monday’s reenactment was picked from the espionage trial of whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, the government researcher who leaked documents detailing the government’s exaggeration and deception about the Vietnam War to the New York Times.
“We had enough of the examination, cross examination, to get the feel of what the line of questioning was, but also some powerful things, like in the testimony by Ellsberg,” Carroll said. “At the end he makes some pretty powerful statements about feeling and obligation to the betterment of humanity, and to get the truth out.”
The espionage case against Ellsberg was ultimately dismissed over revelations of evidence tampering and break-ins by the Nixon administration.
“The sonofabitching thief is made a national hero and is going to get off on a mistrial, and the New York Times gets a Pulitzer Prize for stealing documents,” President Richard Nixon said after the dismissal. “What in the name of God have we come to?”
The reenactments return today with the raucous trial of the Chicago Seven protesters at noon in the SURC pit, and the obscenity trial of comedian Lenny Bruce on Wednesday.
This year, the First Amendment Festival joined with College Civics Week, which celebrates and encourages civic involvement on campuses throughout the state.
For Brianne Wood, ASCWU vice president for legislative affairs, the two events seem like a natural fit.
Together, it means there are events all week, which adds to the buzz and encourages participation.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman visited CWU on Monday in part to honor students’ get-out-the-vote efforts, and the week will end with the College Civics Week Block Party from 5-8 p.m. Thursday in the SURC Ballroom, and will feature food and live music from Seattle band Hey Marseilles.
Wood said people can’t vote without the right to assembly, expression and petition.
“Our major College Civics events are the starting and the ending,” she said. “It’s kind of like we are the bun to the rest of all the mock trials and the marketplace of ideas that’s happening downstairs.
“So it’s a really great thing to actually put all these events together, because one way or another they mingle together in a lot of ways.”