It was difficult to ignore:
While an elderly man to my right offered me a fake $10,000 bill, another, weather-beaten man yelled and waved his Bible in the direction of a 19-year-old in a tie-dye shirt. His conversion efforts were being frustrated by the laughter and scattered applause for a pair of young men waltzing in a slow circle around him in the throes of a major-league make-out session.
I walked to a nearby trashcan, where I parted with my new pamphlets on environmental activism, the Marine Corps and animal cruelty. Having organized my paperwork, I stepped back, observed our UA mall and basked briefly in the light of our daily free-speech circus.
Wrong? Maybe. Hateful? Sometimes. Annoying? Abso-fricken-lutely. But the guy shouting into the microphone about Jesus and the man sitting at the little table trying to legalize marijuana have something in common.
They are allowed, according to the First Amendment, to engage in a relatively peaceful and constructive expression of their ideas. This might be something we take for granted, but they are symbols of the way our First-Amendment-protected environment is supposed to function.
Free speech is not always as easy to handle as a clipboard with a chronic leaf on it. In places far and wide, there are real debates about the merit of allowing people to speak their minds or express religious traditions. On Jan. 20, Dutch politician and filmmaker Geert Wilders appeared in an Amsterdam court facing two years of imprisonment for producing a movie which purportedly portrays Islam as an inherently violent religion. Wilders has also made public comments to the effect that he believes the Quran should be banned, drawing condemnation from many countries in the European Union. Wilders, because of his views, was barred from traveling to the United Kingdom.
The week before, in France, lawmakers from the ruling party of President Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a bill which would outlaw wearing a burqa. The wearing of traditional headscarves, yarmulkes and ""conspicuous"" Christian crosses has been banned in France's public schools since 2004. This ban was an effort to promote secularization in all public settings.
In this case, Wilders and the women who feel religiously obligated to wear a burqa have something in common: Lawmakers are telling these women and Wilders that they bear the risk of imprisonment and fine should they fail to confine their expression to their private homes. This is a danger that the animal-rights guy, the ""we're-all-going-to-hell"" guy and the gentlemen making out did not face on our campus today.
Of course, American college campuses do deal with controversies over freedom of speech. One needs only to research stories ranging from the chalk-vandalism issue here last semester to the censorship at Yale University last year of cartoons, which depicted the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.
And, of course, Wilders may offer a drastically skewed perspective of Islamic teachings. And, of course, the burqa may be a symbol of female subservience. He does, and it is.
But in light of the consequences these kinds of debates can yield from Connecticut to Paris to the sun-baked sidewalks of the UA, one is called upon to appreciate the discourse and relatively relaxed relationship we have with those who express different viewpoints out loud on campus.
A university shouldn't take the public religious debates for granted, debates which take place here every day. I suggest we celebrate by speaking our minds right back.
Or grab a partner and let the make-out sessions begin.
— Wade Beavers is a political science senior who reserves the right to say whatever the hell he wants. Responses to his column may be sent to email@example.com