Campus protests against anti-abortion group

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Students protests against the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform. NIA KITCHIN / THE FLAT HAT

When members of VOX at the College of William and Mary heard that a graphic anti-abortion demonstration would be held on campus April 17 and 18, they organized to create a counter-protest. Students, faculty and community members participated by protesting around the sundial near the Earl Gregg Swem Library with pro-abortion rights signage across from where the anti-abortion group had set up their images. 

The anti-abortion group, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, is not affiliated with the College, but they are permitted to demonstrate at public schools under free speech laws. According to their website, CBR demonstrates at many public college campuses. They refer to these demonstrations as an educational initiative entitled the Genocide Awareness Project 

Prior to the demonstration, Vice President of Student Affairs Ginger Ambler released a campuswide email to clarify that the College was not promoting CBR’s message by allowing them on campus. 

“As a public institution of higher education, William and Mary recognizes its legal obligations to foster constitutionally protected free speech and expression in the university community,” Ambler said in the email. “This is not a university-sponsored event and William and Mary is not endorsing the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform’s message. The university is honoring its obligations under the U.S. Constitution and Virginia law … Discussion, differing opinions, debate and dialogue are part of the educational experience here.” 

NIA KITCHIN / THE FLAT HAT

The idea for the counterdemonstration was borne when VOX Social Media Chair Elizabeth Snyder ‘21 received an email from Student Leadership Development Director Anne Arseneau April 13, letting her know that CBR would be demonstrating that week. Snyder disseminated the information via social media, and the announcement gained traction among the College community. VOX called a meeting April 15 to organize the counterprotest. They, along with community support, promoted and oversaw the event.  

 “At this point, I was already considering a counter-demonstration but was primarily concerned with warning the student body because the school evidently was not going to do so,” Snyder said. 

“At this point, I was already considering a counter-demonstration but was primarily concerned with warning the student body because the school evidently was not going to do so,” Snyder said. 

The College’s anti-abortion organization Tribe for Life asked CBR to abstain from demonstrating and publicly dissociated themselves from the organization’s displays. 

“We have spoken directly with the Center, asking them to refrain from demonstrating at William and Mary,” Tribe for Life said in a Facebook post. “If they still choose to conduct their demonstration, please know that Tribe for Life is in no way associated with it. We affirm that all life must be protected from conception to natural death, but we reject the Center’s use of graphic imagery and condemnatory language in making this point.” 

CBR’s signage is purposefully large and contains graphic images, which depict what they claim are bloody embryos and fetuses alongside photos of distraught women. Some images contain photos and textrelated to the Holocaust, which are included in order to visually compare abortion to genocide. 

Virginia Project Director for the CBR Maggie Ferrara said that the imagery is used to illustrate their central message that “the pre-born are human beings and that abortion decapitates and dismembers them.  

Ferrara said that CBR chooses to visit college campuses because most abortions are performed on college-aged women, and that they have found that students on college campuses are typically open to debate and discussion of these issues. Ferrara said she takes part in these demonstrations because of her personal views and experiences she gained from working in a crisis pregnancy center. 

“I just saw how much need there was, and how much misinformation there was out there about abortion and about women’s other options when they are facing unplanned pregnancies,” Ferrara said. “So I wanted to do more to educate the population as a whole and try to reach people even when they are not in crisis.” 

NIA KITCHIN / THE FLAT HAT

During the demonstration, the Division of Student Affairs was tabling with information flyers at a tent in between the counter-protesters and CBR. Staff members were present to answer student questions about the free speech laws that allowed this demonstration and counter-protest to occur. College spokesperson Suzanne Clavet explained that the College would only refuse to protect speech if it posed a safety concern, but beyond that objective, it must remain content neutral. 

 the university does not restrict or regulate speech solely based on content,” Clavet said in an email. “As a public university William & Mary recognizes its obligations under the U.S. Constitution and Virginia law. Time, place and manner restrictions are permitted and the university considers those.” 

Clavet said that the review process for groups to demonstrate on campus only considers whether such a demonstration would pose a threat to the College community. 

“While generally hate speech is still protected speech according to the U.S. Constitution, there is some speech that falls outside the protection of the First Amendment,” Clavet said. “For example, speech that would incite a riot or pose an active threat would not be protected. When the university gets a request for a demonstration such as the one today, we review it to see if it falls within our facility use guidelines and within the protections of the U.S. Constitution. Those discussions involve members of the administration, typically Student Affairs, University Counsel and WMPD. Each of these situations have to be evaluated individually. We also realize these topics are complex and the university is committed to helping our campus community navigate them.” 

The William and Mary Police Department established a presence around the sundial during the two days of the CBR’s demonstration. There were usually three to five officers observing the CBR’s demonstration from a distance and WMPD Chief Deb Cheesebro was also occasionally in attendance. 

 “Like with many other events on campus, our officers were on hand to ensure a safe and orderly exchange of ideas and answer questions,” Cheesebro said in an email. “There weren’t any specific safety concerns.” 

“Like with many other events on campus, our officers were on hand to ensure a safe and orderly exchange of ideas and answer questions,” Cheesebro said in an email. “There weren’t any specific safety concerns.” 

Over the course of the demonstration, people gathered at the counterprotest in a display of their opposition to CBR. People at the counter protest created signs, played musical instruments, pet an emotional support rabbit, and discussed what drove them to take part in the first place. 

“I’m really not a fan of trying to use misinformation and shame and fear to try and control other people’s bodies,” Emory Magner ’19 said. 

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Specialist Alex Greenwood had joined the protest after walking over from his office in William H. Small Hall and realizing what was happening.  

“I had no idea this was happening; I was walking over this morning and I saw an email from the Democrats. … I put it together when I got back to my office and I immediately became kind of enraged,” Greenwood said. “I of course don’t approve of their message in the first place, but the fact that they are co-opting Holocaust imagery, they’re co-opting Holocaust victims for their own harmful agenda, that kind of put me over the top.” 

Three students decided to gather around a guitar and use music as their median of protest. Melissa Hudson ’19, Kinsey Wilk ’19 and Katie Dawkins ’19 said they came to the counterprotest to show their support for women negatively affected by the demonstration and counteract the CBR’s views. 

NIA KITCHIN / THE FLAT HAT

“We need to be out here to make it clear that the student body doesn’t support spreading this sort of fake news and hateful messages,” Wilk said. 

Dawkins emphasized the necessity of creating a visible protest display so that people walking by the area did not automatically believe the information being presented to them by the CBR. 

“I just think it’s really important to be visible as a reminder to people who don’t know a lot about abortion or people who have abortions that the information being presented to them isn’t the only information available, and isn’t even correct information,” Dawkins said. “It’s a show of support and a reminder to challenge the ideas being spread here if someone didn’t already know those ideas needed to be challenged.” 

Snyder said that she was personally pleased with the counterprotest and grateful to all the people on campus who helped or took part in it. 

“I think we made a lot of people feel safe and loved which was our goal from the get-go,” Snyder said. “We also gave people a platform from which to express their discontent, rage…”