Balancing Free Speech: A History of Counter-Event **Liberated

At 5 p.m on March 15, Bekins lawn will host **Liberated. Here, students and faculty will be elevating the level of progressive political discourse on campus by bringing together a coalition of clubs and classes for a teach-in, potluck, and dance party of resistance. This is the story of how and why this event came to be.


This Wednesday, my class spent its last 30 minutes setting up a sound system to experiment with audio mechanics for the first time. Students were scattered across Bekins lawn, presenting a thumbs up or down to indicate appropriate music volume as we jammed to the genre of rebellion: house music. One student was situated on the chapel steps and another inside the chapel, texting their classmates to report on the sound’s travel. And as my class pumped house music across Johnston Complex, measuring and specifying exact decibels, I was able to reflect on what seemed to be a dizzying sequence of events that led us to that moment.


This year, I’ve been writing my senior honors thesis on free speech and college campuses. The paper aims to address a number of issues central to First Amendment protections of freedom of expression. In the midst of my research and writing, I caught wind that Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, was coming to campus. My immediate concerns with Shapiro’s campus speech were political: his belief that transgender people are mentally ill, for example, has the potential to do incredible harm to transgender people on campus. Because of this and other political opinions held by Shapiro against minority groups, I felt it was appropriate to create a counter event.


During my research, I concluded that responding to provocateurs by protesting does not necessarily advance the progressive cause. I believe this for multiple reasons. First, due the physical arrangement of Convocations and Lectures speakers, productive and impartial dialogue is difficult to achieve between speaker and attendees, especially in the form of Q&A. Secondly, I do not believe in attempts to shut down speaking events and wouldn’t want to fall trap to the recent incidents at college campuses such as UC Berkeley and Middlebury, where the use of protests led to progressive values being undermined. Thirdly, I want to prioritize actively organizing progressive movements rather than using my efforts to thwart an already organized group. And lastly, I find it  important to provide a community and support system for those who are being targeted by prejudicial messages.


I brought this idea to my electronic music class, The Club, otherwise known as BuffClub, taught by Professor Tim Seiber. We began to brainstorm how to use partying as a political force and **Liberated was born.


“Who holds what space where?” is a political question. Parties are no exception. In The Club, we’ve learned the deep history of house music and the spaces it’s occupied. Going back to the late 70s in Chicago, Frankie Knuckles, known as the Grandfather of House started offering spaces of haven and hope where gay, black and Latino men etched a space for themselves. In their DJ history book, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton described this evolution:


“In Chicago, as the seventies became the eighties, if you were black and gay your church may well have been Frankie Knuckle’s Warehouse, a three-story factory building in the city’s desolate west side industrial zone. Offering hope and salvation to those who had few other places to go, here you could forget your earthly troubles and escape to a better place. Like church, it promised freedom, and not even in the next life. In this club Frankie Knuckles took his congregation on journeys of redemption and freedom.”


The warehouse provided a space to express identities that were being silenced and mistreated in the world. It served as a restorative space to build and flourish new communities. This work paved the way for house music and club scenes to become positive places for all queer people of color.


The use of dance and house music, then, fits perfectly with our plans to counter the rhetoric being brought to campus. BuffClub’s aims and goals are not to disrupt the event, but rather use the time to progress our own values, strengthen our own community, and build up and encourage one another.


There was initial pushback within Student Life about the timing of **Liberated, as it overlaps directly with Ben Shapiro’s talk. Another issue revolved around the “correct” way to register spaces on campus. Our event became a question of who holds what space where. A political question. Through discussions and negotiations, BuffClub worked with Student Life to address concerns.


The Club moved forth knowing that not only did we have access to this space and time, but that these two congruent, yet opposing political events could happen simultaneously. Moreover, having this event was a constructive way to elevate speech without silencing either group.


BuffClub’s hope for the upcoming week is that students and administrators alike recognize the importance of our event: in maintaining free and unabridged speech, in fighting for students’ right to protest, and in creating a space for students to oppose damaging rhetoric in a positive way. This is an event for progressive groups on campus to come together and organize, when the political climate is trying to break us apart. The Justice Coalition will be hosting a teach-in and six University clubs will discuss their particular causes followed by The Club’s students DJ sets.
**Liberated will be on Bekins Lawn Wednesday, March 15 from 5 p.m- 9 p.m and is open to students, faculty and the Redlands community who wish to engage with progressive values, actions, and dance in a space “of redemption and freedom.”