Two University of Connecticut students were arrested Tuesday morning while attempting to block a group of pro-life protesters from displaying graphic images of mutilated fetuses in front of the Student Union.
Outraged by the graphic images, and what they saw as grossly misleading and disrespectful parallels to major historical genocides like the Holocaust, the protesters carried signs and chanted pro-choice slogans in an effort to overpower the speakers, who were equipped with a loudspeaker.
The demonstration was organized by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, a group of itinerant activists based in Lake Forest, California. The group first arrived at UConn on Monday. They refer to the demonstration as “The Genocide Awareness Project.”
Colin Neary, a UConn senior and protest organizer, likened the group to the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas church known for its protests of gay marriage and military funerals.
Representatives of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform could not be reached for comment.
Students were surprised to find that the demonstrators were not UConn students.
“Originally we assumed that this was an anti-choice group,” said Salvatore Sodaro, a junior at UConn and one of the protests many organizers. “But we quickly realized that these were not UConn students.”
“It’s a traveling caravan of anti-choice folks who go from campus to campus,” he said. “They said they would be at UMass Amherst next.”
John Saddlemire, UConn’s vice president for student affairs, and Police Chief Barbara O’Connor discouraged student protesters from obstructing the group’s presentation.
Saddlemire said that the university is obligated to protect the First Amendment rights of students and non-students alike.
“Because something is offensive or repugnant to someone doesn’t change the fact that it is still free speech. And if there is anywhere in the world this needs to be clearly demonstrated, it is an American public university,” Saddlemire said.
O’Connor could not be reached for comment.
Students involved with the UConn radio station WHUS 91.7 handed out water to protesters to help them stay hydrated during the lengthy protest, which began around 8 a.m. and lasted until 5 p.m.
As the day wore on, the two opposing factions became increasingly antagonistic. Members of the pro-life group hurled insults at students, accusing women who said they were sexual assault victims to stop being promiscuous. One UConn student forced himself to vomit in the middle of the demonstration in response to the group’s graphic images and language.
UConn Spokesman Michael Kirk said the groups that plan demonstrations on Fairfield Way need to seek permission through the Student Union, which “doesn’t discriminate based on the political or social message of the organizers.”
Asked if the two students who were arrested will be penalized by the school, Kirk said the UConn Office of Community Standards, the department responsible for disciplining students, has a process to determine if students have violated the student code.
“I don’t know whether or not the students arrested today will face a sanction of some kind since they have to go through the process first,” Kirk said.
Members of the UConn Pro Life Club voted against sponsoring the group after they were approached by a representative last Fall, according to the group’s president Steven Steben.
“Obviously we agree with the pro-life position, but we didn’t want to attach ourselves to some of the tools they were using, like the graphic photos. There’s a lot of internal conflict about that,” Steben said.
Steben said he encouraged members of the club to attend the demonstration. He said that the event’s main speakers stuck to their pro-life arguments and did not antagonize protesters.