Lead editorial

Waging on free speech

When Richelle Burress was sent home from her job at the University Hospital cafeteria last Wednesday after refusing to remove an $8 living wage campaign button, her employer, Morrison Management Services, cited company policy regarding uniforms to justify its action.

Burress refused to return to work until the company allowed her to wear the pin. Fortunately, she was reinstated yesterday. She will be allowed to wear her pin to work -- a potential First Amendment disaster alleviated.

Although this story has a happy ending, it should not be forgotten too quickly. The University's Labor Action Group will hold a rally today at noon to celebrate Burress's reinstatement. The rally originally was intended to be a protest, and although there no longer is any need for protest, the University community must realize the severity of Morrison Management Services' action.

The $8 pin Burress wore was a serious protest of her wage. While the Commonwealth mandates the minimum wage for classified employees, her employers could take the pin as a personal affront. But that is not grounds for restricting her freedom of speech.

Whether or not the company simply was enforcing a rule -- as opposed to using that rule as a loophole to diffuse an uncomfortable situation -- is unclear. But in either case, any attempt to abridge an individual's freedom of speech is unacceptable.

The $8 button represents the opinion of an activist group committed to effecting change. The power of the individual in American society to effect change depends heavily upon the rights guaranteed us by the First Amendment. Historically, societies that restrict speech and expression react violently to attempts by the masses to claim those rights -- a lesson taught by such tragedies as the Tiananmen Square massacre. And change in those societies often must be brought about by similarly violent means -- as so many coup d'etats throughout history can attest. But revolutionary action need not be bloody to be effective, and First Amendment rights afford American citizens the opportunity for bloodless revolution. While this is only one reason that free speech is sacred, it is an extremely important reason.

Young and energetic minds thrive at institutions of higher education, and the University has no shortage of them -- the number of organizations around Grounds committed to different causes and ideals are evidence of that. LAG, which is composed of students as well as faculty, staff members and members of the community, is just one such group. But LAG has maintained itself particularly well, even inspiring people such as Burress to take a stand for what they believe in. Without fundamental free speech rights, however, groups like LAG could not exist. That is why Morris Management Services' action is so disturbing, despite its subsequent retraction.

This community cannot tolerate abridgements of free speech. Today's rally will be a celebration of Burress's victory, but LAG also should use the occasion to support freedom of speech. The University community should think long and hard about this incident, and think about the very real and tangible benefits free speech offers to our society. The University would be a very different place without them.

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