Political visits stir student protests

By Natasha Bhuyan
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, October 21, 2004

With the elections less than two weeks away, controversial political figures are flocking to campus, resulting in student protests and the lingering question of whether this form of political activism is effective.

Conservative author Ann Coulter will speak at Centennial Hall today, just one week after Michael Moore's visit to McKale Center.

Alicia Cybulski, president of the UA Young Democrats, said UAYD will not organize a protest for the Ann Coulter event, nor will they condone any disruption during the event.

The decision comes days after Michael Moore's visit to campus, where about 100 protesters interrupted portions of his speech with chants of "four more years."

"We believe in freedom of speech on both sides," Cybulski said. "If you go to the event, you should be able to listen to the speaker in peace."

Cybulski added UAYD's goal is to get Sen. John Kerry elected, and students' time would be better spent volunteering to get out the vote as opposed to protesting Coulter.

Cybulski said UAYD came to decision after discussing the topic during a recent meeting, then announced UAYD's official stance on their listserv.

Pete Seat, state chairman of the College Republicans, said the UACR did not organize or advocate the Michael Moore protest and said the protesters were independent of the club.

"College Republicans do not protest - that is something we leave for liberals," Seat said. "We rally for President Bush and our Republican candidates."

Some students on campus have defended the Moore protesters' actions as a demonstration of free speech, while others criticized them for being disruptive.

Jack Bybee, a psychology and creative writing junior who grew up in the Western Cape of South Africa under apartheid, said he came to America because he values the freedoms in the First Amendment, which many South Africans used to live without.

The Michael Moore protesters, as any Americans, had a right to express themselves in opposition, Bybee said.

"Stifle freedom of expression through censorship or fear and you create an underground rumor mill where no one knows what the truth is," Bybee said. "That state of affairs can get dangerous. ... You do not realize how valuable your freedoms are until they are taken away."

But Harmony Serlin, a sophomore majoring in Spanish, said the protesters denied Michael Moore his right to free speech as well as the audience's right to listen.

"Instead of inspiring empathy and understanding, it only angered people," said Julie Cohen, a clinical psychology doctoral student. "Rally outside, or attend a controversial event and ask incisive questions during the Q & A, but never be disruptive just for the sake of it."

Although UAYD does not plan to have an organized protest during Coulter's appearance on campus, Andrew Spencer, psychology and philosophy junior and UAYD member, said he will stage a silent, respectful demonstration outside the event and later listen to the speech inside, sporting pro-Kerry signs and shirts.

"Anyone that really believes in democracy should make their voices heard in a civil and peaceful way," Spencer said.

While many argue the goal of a political protest is to sway undecided voters or be an agent for change, others agree with Spencer, believing the purpose is simply to be heard.

Rachel Wilson, a second-year law student who has participated in campus protests ranging from sweatshops to tuition increases, has been arrested a few times for her methods of activism, such as locking herself to the doors of the Administration building with a U-Lock.

But Wilson said protesting is not necessarily to "convert" people to ideas but rather to get involved and show the public there is opposition to a particular message.

"I'm happy with anyone who gets up off their rear end and is active in political issues, no matter the viewpoint," Wilson said. "Apathy is more unjustified than anything the College Republicans have done."

Danielle Roberts, president of UACR, said the College Republicans have positively rallied behind President Bush by igniting a passion in students and empowering them to vote.

Roberts said the protesters' actions at the Moore speech were their way of supporting the president and showing Moore he could not indoctrinate students with his ideas.

Breanna Tomassoni, a pre-nursing freshman, said regardless of the method used, protesting is effective in raising awareness about issues that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Seat pointed out student activism also has the ability to inspire change.

"You can see just how effective we have been in making our voices heard on campus," Seat said. "1,212 students and community members signed our petition asking for a major conservative speaker on campus ... and now Ann Coulter is coming."

But Justin Kardish, a political science senior, said rather than being an outcry against injustice, modern-day protests are ineffective because they are filled with hatred.

"While the traditions of protest established around the world by such pioneers as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi have worked to help the evolution of the human condition, more recent protests have become an utter disgrace," Kardish said.

Students said public image is also an important factor to consider in the art of protesting.

Joanne Johnson, an elementary education junior, said if UAYD refrains from protesting the Coulter speech, the organization can avoid being categorized in the same "low class" as the protesters at the Moore speech.

"When people protest in such a way to quell the other side's point of view, it does nothing but trivialize their cause to the public by giving the appearance that their side is irrational," said Eric Hathaway, an economics senior.

The negative portrayal of the Moore protesters is unfortunate, said Ashleigh Bennett, a pre-nursing freshman, as most Republicans were willing to let Moore come to speak, whether or not they agreed with him.

Tomassoni said the best way to protest is to support your beliefs in a non-aggressive manner.

"There is no right or wrong side to be on. Just because people don't agree with you doesn't make them wrong," Tomassoni said. "All you can do is say how you feel and lay out the facts ... but the choice is still theirs to make."