Something occurred on the University of South Dakota campus recently that perhaps could easily be viewed by most Vermillion residents as a bit of a kerfuffle involving only the university community.
Such an assumption would be a mistaken one. The issues surrounding some of recent happenings involving two student groups — mainly, the University of South Dakota Veterans Club and a USD student anarchist group Students Against the State (SATS) — provide some important lessons for all of us.
The role that USD's student newspaper, The Volante, has fulfilled in informing the public about these happenings also should be noted by more than just the public. We wish media across the nation would follow The Volante's example as it dealt with this touchy issue. More on that later.
Here, in a nutshell, is what happened:
On Sunday, April 24, the University of South Dakota Veterans Club set up a display honoring all the servicemen and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
By that next Tuesday, a member of SATS had posted protest signs and an upside-down American flag in front of the display.
It may be easy to assume that, yes, this is America, and especially if you're a USD student, you may believe that the USD campus belongs, collectively, to everyone who studies there. Meaning that anyone, at any time, should be able to express herself or himself at any place on the campus.
It doesn't quite work that way.
To properly express themselves on campus, students or student-associated groups must first fill out a "Non-Commercial Free Speech Policy and Registration Form" and have it approved by university officials before staging a display or demonstration or protest in a few select areas of the school grounds.
It's not as draconian as it sounds. The campus is, after all, state property, and the "state" (in this case, the university) has a right to control what occurs on it.
The free speech policy in no way is an attempt to limit expression. It simply sets certain guidelines.
It is our understanding that the veterans club followed those guidelines. If our information is correct, it appears that the anarchist group did not.
The veterans club's display consisted of 5,413 miniature American flags posted on the lawn on the north side of Old Main on the USD campus. Each flag represented an American soldier killed in our nation's war on terror since Sept. 11, 2001.
A spokesman for the club believes someone from SATS removed some of the flags in the process of staging it's own demonstration in reaction to the one set up by the veterans group.
"(The student) claims not to have touched the display, but shortly after it was discovered there were flags missing from the display," veterans club president Eric Gage told the Yankton P&D. "To us, these aren't just flags. Each one represents somebody that we know that we lost."
When a USD student and veteran tried to remove the protest items from the display, he was verbally confronted by one of the members of SATS, Gage added.
As you might imagine, the display and the "counter-demonstration" by the anarchists has sort of devolved into a flurry of accusations and finger pointing.
While this incident didn't erupt into a scene that has become all too familiar on the nightly news in recent months – I mean, to the best of our knowledge, no one was marching in Tea Party fashion over the veterans' display carrying placards with misspelled words and photos depicting the president as Hitler — we find the aftermath of it all to be a bit disconcerting.
The veterans group is upset. They have a right to be. This display has become a tradition in recent years on the USD campus. Its organizers followed the rules.
SATS didn't follow the rules. We realize there are countless examples in our nation's history when people felt the only way they could be heard was by breaking society's norms. SATS faced no such challenge.
We recognize that this anarchist group has as much right to express itself as any other student organization. But, for starters, if they really want to be taken seriously, they should follow protocol.
SATS acted as poorly as the birthers and Tea Party fanatics and anti-health reform kooks and tax protesters that stand and scream and prove to the world that they don't have an inkling of the very issues they are protesting.
It's difficult to listen to someone who shows such utter disregard for a fellow student group. SATS doesn't come out looking very well in the aftermath of all of this.
Now it's time to mention The Volante. In its April 24 issue, it ran two front page stories: one on the display put up by the veterans club, and one on the "protest" by SATS. Anyone who reads those stories can detect only an admirable effort by Volante reporters to be objective as they informed readers about this issue.
So, we are perplexed after reading this quote by Gage, the veterans club president, in the P&D: "There's alumni that are threatening a boycott of all the businesses in the Volante. They're very outraged people, and this expands beyond our campus and our community through our alumni," he said.
That's a bit baffling. The veterans club has every right to be upset about the way their display was mistreated. In expressing their outrage, however, we think it is rather childish on the club's part to try to lay blame where none exists.
We do know that Volante staff members have had discussions with representatives of both the veterans group and SATS. The people involved with the campus newspaper are setting a fine example for media across the country. They have done nothing to inflame the passions that seemed to have overheated recently at USD. They've simply done their best to objectively tell everyone's story.
There are many lessons we can all take away from this: the rights we enjoy that allows us to peaceably assemble and express ourselves publicly, the sacrifices made by our war veterans, the heartfelt opposition to war that many individuals possess, and the role of a free press in our cities, hamlets and college and university campuses.
All of what's listed in the paragraph above makes the United States unique. Which leads us to offer one final suggestion the next time organizers with opposing views plan a public display, demonstration or protest in Vermillion or on the USD campus.
Respect one another.
It will be easier to hear your message.