Madison Liberty built a Free Speech Wall on April 1st, 2012, and placed it on JMU’s Commons from April 2nd through April 9th. It took many long hours to build, but was well worth it for the ocean of student expression that flowed through (and beyond) its two-sided 4x8 panes over the weeklong period.
The wall’s sprawling mess of politics, social commentary, school pride, and non sequiturs filled my heart with joy every time I walked by it. That probably sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. This was a physical manifestation of the abstract concept of liberty: it was open to all but forced on none, it was vibrant and ever-changing, it was delightfully contradictory. And above all, it was peaceful.
Both the wall’s content and its authors impressed me. Despite controversial views being expressed about religion and government, the wall didn’t descend into so-called “hate speech”. And no one scribbled out another’s message, instead responding to things they disagreed with by writing their own views, creating long dialogues tied together by arrows zigzagging across the Wall. More common than insults and curses were expressions of love and fraternity, aimed at individuals, the JMU community, and the entire world.
The co-dependent relationship between freedom and peace comes as a surprise to many, but in practice we see it everywhere. JMU embraced free speech through its policies last fall, becoming a green light school for speech (according to thefire.org), and the dividends of mutual respect, harmony, and a higher class of student discourse are already being paid.
When speech is policed and repressed, the opportunity to write or speak freely often leads to nastiness and vulgarity. Pent-up frustrations are let loose without restraint, and people can’t help but try to push limits. We all want to give The Man the middle finger, after all. JMU lets us express ourselves in our daily lives, so we don’t need to turn a Free Speech Wall into a symbol of our repressed anger and frustration. We can, and did, turn our Wall into a symbol for freedom, love, and plurality. Could college be any better?