By Tiffany Brown || Contributing Writer
When seeking a liberal arts education, one is immersed in an environment filled with varying personalities, ethnicities, and opinions. One of the notable gems on Franklin and Marshall’s campus is its historic protest tree. Residing between Stager and the college bookstore, it usually gains a substantial amount of attention from students and staff for the many plastered comments it bears for the public to react to.
However, with COVID-19 dramatically reducing campus’ population and traffic, many students are unable to see the physical tree and are unable to participate in conversations stemming from it.
In response, a few students decided to combat the issue by creating a virtual space—an Instagram account called @protesttreeproject—where students and staff can express their opinions and concerns about events on F&M’s campus and around the world. The account has already amassed 1160 followers and counting, and it has 218 submissions, or posts, as of now. The page has essentially become the virtual home for difficult conversations usually sparked on the physical tree.
In the first week of the account’s creation, I messaged the original account owners directly and asked them a few questions about their intentions behind creating the account.
Why did you decide to start this account?
ProtestTreeProject: We felt the need to start the account to continue the tradition of the protest tree. We felt that the physical protest tree has always facilitated difficult conversations and led to positive change. However, given the nature of the new module system, the protest tree has become inaccessible to a significant demographic of our campus community. Like a myriad of our other activities, the protest tree also needed to be moved online so that all could access it. Making the protest tree accessible, we hope, will make people feel heard when their voices are amplified, help them realize they are not alone, and give them an arena to engage critically with those with whom they disagree. We also think there is a lot of discontent, anxiety, and frustration surrounding the state of our world and our campus right now for a range of reasons—most notably the pandemic and ongoing civil rights debates.
Is it difficult to read entries and remain unbiased about them?
ProtestTreeProject: It can be difficult to read entries; it gets emotionally exhausting. Sometimes we will see something that totally grinds our gears and we disagree fervently, but that is the byproduct of a free society. If we refuse to give a platform to those with whom we disagree, even those with fringe opinions, the entire purpose of the protest tree is defeated. We have added one or two of our own submissions, as well. But as a platform, we intend to serve as a forum. That being said, it is simply not our place to hold an opinion or censor any opinions.
If you could estimate, about how many entries do you receive daily? And does it get overwhelming?
ProtestTreeProject: We started the account 5 days ago and have received over 115 submissions. Yes. It definitely gets overwhelming. But again, it’s really not about us. And if we can shoulder this small burden of balancing our time with this account to amplify the voices of
our campus community members and bring up those difficult but important conversations, it is worth it.
How do you want the administration to react to this page? Do you want a response, or do you just want this page to serve as a more private, safe space for F&M students to express their concerns?
ProtestTreeProject: We’ve been taking some steps to make this account more digestible and accessible for the administration. For example, we have started categorizing every post in story highlights. The intention behind this step is for the administration to be able to easily focus on one particular issue at a time, identify common complaints, and enact positive change. Many of the submissions have critiqued the college for being motivated only by money. If this is indeed true, we should expect that the leadership will take our account very seriously, for if they don’t, they risk a loss of students and their tuition money with them. On a less cynical note, we do like to believe that the administrators went into this business because they care about students’ well-being and success. We hope the submissions will provide them with valuable insight into campus public opinion.
The original account owners were very adamant about making the account a space for everyone to state their opinions regardless of how unpopular, stating “if fringe opinions are not protected, the account cannot claim to be a forum.” This choice may be seen as a controversial take, but @protesttreeproject holds that it was designed to include everyone’s thoughts.
The account’s owners decided to follow the First Amendment guidelines on freedom of speech, rather than the college’s guidelines, stating:
We will never censor any submission with the exceptions of speech that is not constitutionally protected:
– Incitement to imminent unlawful action
– true threats
– fighting words
– obscenity/indecent speech
In the US, there is no constitutional exception for hate speech, given the level of ambiguity and objectivity around the category. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that hate speech is legally protected speech.
It is also worth noting the unavoidable presence of the physical protest tree in its central location on campus whereas if @protesttreeproject gets to be too heavy, one has the option to simply block or mute the account. Yes, seeing the account’s posts can become exhausting and toxic, but it is needed to confront these difficult conversations head-on.
There are other avenues that allow students to love for people in the F&M community, as well. Including a sister account to @protesttreeproject called @fandmvirtualhugs, which takes submissions specifically aimed at uplifting members of the F&M community.
Below is the @protesttreeproject’s on-going petition to bring back the P/NP option and relaxed grading policies:
Sophomore Tiffany Brown is a Contributing Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.