It was well past 2:00 A.M. when I finally made it back to my room for the evening. I was covered in chalk and had had two police encounters that night-the first concerning an assault and the second concerning harassment. I was exhausted, having spent the previous four hours biking around campus passing groups praying, other groups defacing chalking, and still others enjoying the spectacle. Not that the exhaustion really mattered; there was no way I was going to sleep. The defense of blasphemy on the University of Northern Iowa’s campus had just begun.
In April 2009, I became the president of the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers (UNIFI). The two-year-old group of about fifteen active students was going through its first change of leadership, and I was drafted. We immediately went to work putting together a leadership team and planning events for the next year.
On our calendar was a Root Beer Fest to kick off the year, our annual Flying Spaghetti Monster Dinner, and a new addition: Blasphemy Day. As many of you know, Blasphemy Day commemorates the anniversary of the publication of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons and the protesting of efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere aimed at stifling free speech, particularly blasphemy (that is, speech critical or disrespectful of religion). The Center for Inquiry/On Campus quickly got involved, incorporating Blasphemy Day into their Campaign for Free Expression.
The UNIFI officers and I began brainstorming for the event. We discussed such radical ideas as dressing a member as Muhammad, a Bible-for-porn exchange (Smut for Smut, as it is known), or perhaps de-baptisms. By the time the fall semester was near, we had settled on a tamer lineup. The night before Blasphemy Day, our members would chalk Bible verses, secular quotes, and anything else they wanted on the university’s sidewalks and put up blasphemous posters around campus. The next day, we planned to set up a soapbox and invite everyone, regardless of religious views, to say what they liked.
Little did we realize the response we would get.
We met at Pizza Hut and went over the ground rules. This event was not an opportunity to mock believers; it was not a joke. This was a serious event that would offend people, but offending was not the point. The point was to defend the right to free speech where it is most endangered and to show that religion does not deserve any special protection from criticism. In the words of Salman Rushdie, “The moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.” And with that, we headed to campus, armed only with our chalk.
I will never forget that night-scrawling the words of Richard Dawkins in front of the music building, quoting Deuteronomy in front of the campanile, and drawing stick figures of Muhammad on the way to the business building. The response was immediate. Curious onlookers approached, many of them engaging us in conversation. Shortly after came the defacing.
My phone started ringing off the hook. People all over campus were defacing our chalking. Some were walking around with water bottles, washing out what they could. Others were spitting on it or scratching it out with their feet. Still more were chalking back.
I had no clue what to do. Chalking was an option open to all student groups, but there were no policies in place to prevent others from removing that chalk. At the very least, I decided to document what was happening. I grabbed my camera and some fellow UNIFI members, and we started exploring campus on our bicycles to see what was happening.
We started riding down a sidewalk and saw derogatory messages written in response to ours. Next to Thomas Jefferson’s “Question with boldness even the existence of a god” was the less elegant “Imagine my cock in your eye socket, fun times you cunts.” At the end of the sidewalk, hunched down by another of our chalkings, was the author of that sentiment. We raced to him and snapped some pictures, inquiring as to what he was doing. “Don’t worry,” he protested, “we’re fixing it.” We explained that we were the ones who originally did the chalking. He was rendered motionless by the realization. Then he lunged at my camera, managing only to graze it before sprinting away.
I had no idea what to do. A man had just lunged at me! I called the campus police and explained the situation. A couple of us followed the man on our bikes to assure that we would not lose him. Eventually, the police caught up with him and met up with us. A crowd grew, attracted by the sirens and flashing lights.
The officers asked people in the crowd what they had seen. Some said I had been going around campus chalking hate speech. My assailant lied, telling police that he’d been out for a jog and not done any chalking at all. Still, even with the confusion and the lies, nothing excuses what happened next.
The police suggested that we stop taking pictures and stop chalking. They informed us that what we were doing could be illegal-they needed to double-check hate speech laws, they said-and equated what we were doing with coming to a political rally with guns and “shooting up the place.” Such is the state of free speech on my campus.
This would not be our last encounter of the night. We continued on our way, putting up our blasphemous posters. The officers stopped us around 1:30 A.M. and asked to see our posters and inquired more pointedly what we were doing. When I did not immediately hand over the posters, the officers grew irritated. One even remarked that I was “starting to piss [him] off.”
I know how this sounds to some readers: some cocky college kid mouths off to police who in turn get angry. Kid tries to spin the story later. That is not the case. I tried to remain respectful through the whole ordeal, but I was not eager to relinquish my property to officers who had already warned me against blasphemy!
Soon after that, I returned to my dorm-the point where our story began. I was exhausted, but Facebook was abuzz. Post after post bristled with opinions about Blasphemy Day. I spent the next hour seeking out every commentator I could find and making sure our own stance was represented.
The next day, everyone was still talking about Blasphemy Day. Even class discussions turned to the event. The buzz it generated was unprecedented. The University of Northern Iowa does not get this riled up, not ever.
The jeers and attacks continued on Facebook, but I was able to keep my composure. This was a day for free speech and, if anything, the backlash showed how important it was. Then came the text message that cut deep. It was from my sister. She told me that she was ashamed and did not want to talk with me again. Soon after, there was a text from my mother, asking if it was all worth it. To this day, those messages still sting.
Around noon, we learned that a traveling preacher had randomly decided to visit UNI that day to preach from his Bible. I grabbed my Bible, hurried to the spot, and jumped onto a nearby bench to proclaim the Gospel as well. In all fairness, my message, which was based on the dark side of Scripture-on keeping women submissive and on Jesus coming “not to bring peace, but to bring a sword”-was not all that different from the preacher’s message that we students were sinners condemned to hell. The preacher and I briefly discussed homosexuality, but class beckoned and I had to run off.
Half an hour into class, I got a text message telling me to get to the library immediately. I ran there, unsure what to expect. As I turned a corner, I saw a mob of people congregated around the bench where I had been preaching, with police officers all around. I pushed my way through the crowd of sixty to reach the center where I found several UNIFI members and some religious students arguing about religion as the other fifty students listened in.
That was the moment when I knew Blasphemy Day had been a success. We had started a conversation. Here were sixty students wrenched away from apathy. Instead of placing religion on the untouchable pedestal, exempt from any critique, students were skipping class to talk about it!
I remained at the library for about three hours. More students came and went. When I left, people were still talking. I logged onto my e-mail account to see a message from the University Office of Marketing and Public Relations. It gave an overview of Blasphemy Day, noted that no laws or policies had been violated, and reminded everyone of safety rules in public forums. The university had firmly sided with us.
I returned to Facebook to see where the chatter had headed. I noticed a particularly angry conversation in which a couple of students asked me to come to their room to talk about the day. Earlier one of them had commented “wat fucking queers lol we should beat them up.” I was terrified, but I did not want to walk away from a chance to have a conversation. I invited them to talk with me in the Union and, on the advice of a staff member, went to the campus police with the threat.
That evening, I went to the Union for the meeting, with a six-foot, six-inch tall UNIFI member who had served in Iraq at my side. (I figured it couldn’t hurt.) As the meeting time approached, campus police entered the building and began casually walking around. Then all seven of the mixed-martial-arts-loving guys who had threatened UNIFI members and invited me to their rooms earlier entered the union. Did I mention that I was terrified?
But the conversation was fairly uneventful, and they left soon after. I spent the rest of the night doing some neglected studying until the Union’s midnight closing time. At about 11:30 P. M., the manager of the Union, whom I had never met, approached me. She wanted to make sure I was not walking home alone because once I left the Union, she could no longer look out for me.
That night was, and is, the only time I have ever been afraid to walk home in Cedar Falls. That is another thing I will never forget from Blasphemy Day. The event was certainly controversial, sparking even internal debate in the Center for Inquiry and other secular organizations. But for me, what was most striking was that on a day designed to protect dissent, on the anniversary of blasphemous cartoons that resulted in deaths, death threats, and vandalism, I did not feel safe on my own campus.
As with most things on campus, classes and weekend plans soon overtook Blasphemy Day as the topic of choice. The event still gets brought up now and again, usually as a way to demonize UNIFI, but by and large, students have moved on.
It’s important to remember that the crusade for free speech on college campuses doesn’t begin and end with Blasphemy Day. At the end of March, UNI Proud-the college’s GLBTQIA (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersexed, and Ally) organization-chalked the sidewalks to promote their upcoming Gay Pride Week. The next morning, their chalk had been washed away while advertisements for free tax services and comedy shows had been left unblemished. While there were reports that a university employee had removed the chalk, the university as a whole came down firmly in support of the group.
Predictably, student response was more varied. One student commented on an online campus news story, saying “Today is Tuesday, at UNI there are sidewalk chalking all over one in particular says. GOD IS GOOD, GAY IS GOOD. This is not informative with a place and time, this is Vandalism. IT should NOT be there I wish and hope some washes it away because its offensive.”
In 2008, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) warned of a new bias-incident policy at UNI that prohibited “any inappropriate word or action directed toward an individual or group based upon actual or perceived identity characteristics or background of a group or person and that is contrary to law or policy.” FIRE condemned this policy, warning that it was overly broad, vague, and discretionary. While UNI responded with a pledge that “no student at UNI would ever be punished, or subjected to thought reform, for engaging in protected speech,” the policy remains unchanged to this day.
This is why the fight for free, unfettered speech on my college campus is so important. My own university sends mixed messages as to what it will tolerate; campus police urge students to avoid blasphemous speech; and students want controversial chalkings removed, even going so far as threatening others. As many legal protections as our speech enjoys, the reality on the ground is oftentimes a gravely different story.
So what does the future hold for UNIFI and Blasphemy Day? Time will tell. The group intends to continue hosting the event. Next year we hope to focus not just on blasphemy but on campus policies restricting freedom of speech. I also hope to give campus religious groups forewarning and invite them to chalk alongside us. Groups do not have to agree with what we are saying to respect our right to say it.
The odds are that no future Blasphemy Day will match what went down in Cedar Falls this year. The shock factor caught people off guard and brought out the worst in many of them. Next year, the students will be prepared for it. The fight for the right to dissent will still rage, but my school will never be up in arms in quite the same fashion.
Maybe it is all for the best. Future activists should not have to face physical threats and police encounters. Still, if future Blasphemy Days live up to my prediction that they will be more tranquil, one thing will be missing. On that day of seeing the absolute worst in people, I caught a glimpse of the best of people too. At the end of the day, I received a Facebook message from a girl I barely knew. All it said was, “we are on completely opposite ends of the spectrum, but if your rights get taken away, so do mine. I am grateful to know that I too, may write whatever I want.” If the message got through to just one girl, the day was a success.