Celebration of International Blasphemy Day offends, raises questions over free speech
Published: Monday, October 5, 2009
Updated: Monday, October 5, 2009 22:10
Editors note: A previous version of this article read "Some of the potentially offensive messages written by UNIFI members included the words "F—k Jesus Chris" and an image of Jesus with a phallus in this mouth." However, there is no evidence to suggest a member of UNIFI drew the mentioned phallus.
Campus was divided Wednesday when the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers hosted UNI's participation in the Blasphemy Day International event, a day devoted to the defense of free speech and blasphemy.
Members of the group chalked blasphemous messages Tuesday night, including bible verses, secular quotes and cartoons. Wednesday, they held a spontaneous discussion with roughly 70 people about religion at Maucker Union. While the UNI Police were present to monitor the event, no arrests were made and no crimes were reported.
With regards to the potential offensiveness of the chalked messages, Assistant Manager for Marketing and Public Relations James O'Connor reported that the messages have been sent to the university's Bias Response Team — a group whose purpose is to coordinate the university's response to bias-related incidents that affect the campus community – for review. At press time, the BRT is in the process of planning a meeting to determine whether the remarks violate the law or university conduct policies.
"While hate crimes are well-defined in federal and state statutes, hate speech is not as well-defined," O'Connor said.
The event created animosity on campus, especially among religious groups. Several people erased some of the chalked messages Tuesday night, while many responses were written. Some of the potentially offensive messages written included the words "F—k Jesus Christ" and an image of Jesus with a phallus in his mouth.
"There was a lot of kind of lowbrow chalking, I would guess, and there was some profanity. While that's not what I chalked, and that's not something I would chalk, I definitely support our members chalking whatever they want to chalk, because it was a day to protect free speech," said UNIFI President Trevor Boeckmann.
There were several reactions across campus, including the creation of the upcoming event "You Are Beautiful UNI." The event is being planned by sophomore Lizzie White, who was offended by UNIFI's methods during Blasphemy Day.
"I think that there's a fine line between sharing your opinion and forcing it on someone, and I think that it was crossed," she said.
According to White, "You Are Beautiful" was an art movement in downtown Chicago where artists used any medium to create a spontaneous mural of public uplifting messages. She plans to bring the idea to UNI Wednesday at 9 p.m. by chalking cheerful messages around campus to counteract the offensive messages of Blasphemy Day.
"I'm just trying to remind people to respect each other—to just be nice, basically," she said. "I think that people just need to take a step back and recognize that we all have feelings and that what we say really affects people."
Another reaction is the new student organization UNI Tolerance, a group formed to promote tolerance and understanding between everyone and to bring people together. Sophomore David Naylor formed the group in reaction to UNIFI's chalked messages as well as the chalked responses.
"A lot of the chalk that UNIFI had put made me extremely angry, but the level of immaturity of some of the responses made me just as angry," he said. "There are some chalked responses that are just completely ridiculous and not warranted at all."
UNI Tolerance met for the first time Thursday, and decided to become a part of "You Are Beautiful UNI" as well as "UNIFI's monthly Grab a Brew, Share Your View" discussion. Boeckmann was present at the meeting, stating that he felt its message of tolerating people was in line with what UNIFI is all about.
"What you do have to respect is people, and people and their ideas are different. Ideas don't deserve rights, people do," Boeckmann said.
"I think that there's a negative image (for UNIFI) as far as tolerating people, and so I hope involvement with UNI Tolerance can help with that," he later added.
Blasphemy Day didn't only polarize campus, however, but also members of UNIFI.
"Leading a group of atheists is often compared to herding cats: it's impossible. We have no dogma; we're a collection of people who don't believe in something. So any event we do, there's always members who think we should be doing something else," Boeckmann said.
Graduate student Tyler Vincent, who considers himself a friend of UNIFI, posted a message on the group's blog speaking out against Blasphemy Day, citing the chalked remarks as "childish."
"What I sensed was that they had decided that they were going to tee off on religious people and really unleash the anger and the frustration that they had with it," he said. "They went wild. And it really rubbed people the wrong way.
"They fostered an environment that appealed to the worst in people, not the best," he later added.
Vincent expressed concern for the group and its members, whom he considers to be his close friends. He noted a disconcerting change in the group's rhetoric a few months ago, which he worries is turning UNIFI into a hate group. He began to become worried by the many blog posts regarding Blasphemy Day.
"All of a sudden they started getting into blasphemy contests, as if we're going to see how offensive we can be towards people, and that really rubbed me the wrong way," he said.
According to Vincent, the change in rhetoric has been notable throughout the year, and said the recent Flying Spaghetti Monster Dinner "seemed like now they were making fun of everybody who believed in some sort of higher power.