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Campus tradition holds history of politics, religion

For more than 40 years, Free Speech Alley has been a university tradition. At times, the Alley has been grounds for controversy with topics swirling around political scandals, religious views or students' rights. As a state university, LSU has stood behind the rights of its students by allowing such a place to express all opinions—even those not shared by the majority.

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Creating the Union

Although thoughts of building a Student Union arose as early as 1939, planning for one didn’t happen until 1958. After a $10 student fee was approved and the architects were commissioned, construction began in 1962. The Student Union opened January 6, 1964.

It was there, in an alley between the Union bookstore and the theatre, that students spoke their minds. The Alley was under the supervision of the Union’s Current Events Committee and was, at that time, only open to students, faculty and staff. In the first few years, it was only open on Mondays, but later moved to Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m., when a student moderator was present.

Senate Bill 21: The Speaker Ban Bill

During the 1967 legislative session, Senate Bill No. 21, Act No. 7—the Speaker Ban Bill, was enacted. This bill prohibited bringing “Communist” and “Atheistic” speakers to state-supported college campuses in Louisiana. This brought great protest from students across the state, including LSU.

In 1968, LSU was host to several speakers including the first Ambassador of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., Igor Bubnov; the former ambassador to Korea, Winthrop Brown; “Rush to Judgment” author Mark Lane; The Rev. Joseph Fletcher; British-American journalist Felix Greene; U.S. Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor; and civil rights activist James Farmer.

Later that year, LSU Chancellor Cecil G. Taylor gave approval for Socialist speaker Paul Boutelle to speak on campus, despite the bill. Boutelle, vice presidential candidate for the Socialist Worker’s Party, was scheduled to speak in the Union’s Royal Ballroom. He was later forced off campus.

An Alley of Their Own

In 1969, the state legislature proposed a fee increase to correct the deficit in the LSU System’s budget. When it was approved, it raised LSU fees by $50 per semester, and would raise out-of-state students’ costs an extra $1,000 in following semesters.

In response, an LSU student marched on the State Capitol and received disciplinary action. In support, students started an impromptu alley of their own, located on the steps of the Union.

Aside from students’ rights, the Alley was home to many discussions that year such as the abolition of compulsory ROTC (it was mandatory for all entering freshman until 1969), women’s dress regulations, material distribution from the Student Liberal Federation, and of course, the football team’s record.

That same year, student David Duke made his presence known when he told an Alley crowd he was a member of the American Nazi Party. The following year, he formed a group called the White Youth Alliance and was known around campus for his views, and for wearing a Nazi uniform.

Housing Option IV: Students vs. Administration 

In December 1972, students were told about rule changes regarding housing. Originally, students living under Option IV were allowed 24-hour visitation from coeds. But that was revoked, and students were given strict housing rules for the spring semester.

When January came around, dorms agreed to limit visiting hours, but students were still unhappy. Students spoke at the Alley and went to deans, but kept hearing the same answers. The Board’s Student Affairs Committee called a meeting and issued guidelines allowing extended visitation, along with sign-in procedures. However, students questioned whether the university had the right to limit their freedom as adult citizens.

Later that year, construction began on a new field house and a chemistry building. Despite protests and attempts at communication, a stately oak was cut down to make room for steel and concrete.

Student Government President Ted Schirmer

Just after Ted Schirmer won the election for Student Government President (with 52.4 percent of the vote) in 1976, he became the reason for controversy. Students were upset and already dissatisfied with his reign, and wanted him gone. Students saw Schirmer as “impossible” and didn’t feel he was fighting for solutions. The final straw was when he stole the ballot boxes for the Homecoming Queen elections—stopping the race entirely.

Free Speech Alley was witness to several of Schirmer’s controversies, where his supporters tried to inform others of the good he was doing.

Talk of impeachment swirled around him, however the Student Government’s impeachment laws had been named vague. The only other option was a recall. With more than 3,200 names on petitions, a recall was official and a new election was rescheduled.

But even then, the votes were counted and Schirmer remained in office. His supporters liked what he’d done for students—concerts in Memorial Oak Grove and on the Parade Ground, free strawberries on the Union steps and free buses for voter registration, among many other movements.

Schirmer took to the Alley to announce his candidacy, and to smoke a marijuana cigarette, for the 1978 Student Government Presidential election. He was later disqualified and was unable to run in the race.

Campus Police join the Alley

In 1979, Campus Police made a trip to the Alley because its participants were violating the state fire codes by blocking the Union entrance. After an arrest, students relocated their impromptu Alley from the Union steps to the Campus police building.

White tape was later placed around the Union entrance, outlining the fire lanes and preventing Alley visitors from violating the law.

Politics Make a Mark

Politicians took a stand at Free Speech Alley in 1980 when Louisiana elected Republican Gov. Dave Treen. Jimmy Fitzmorris, defeated in the primary, claimed that voting irregularities affected the outcome. He lost a lawsuit, after appealing to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Students participated in the Alley discussions regarding the election, which was noted as the most expensive election in years, costing more than $17 million.

Later that year, national news was captivated when Iranian students stormed the American Embassy in Iran, resulting in 50 American citizens being held hostage. Locally, LSU students took to the Alley to voice their feelings on the issue. Later, they protested by marching at the Capitol with flags, signs and coffins.

That year, and in years following, topics at the Alley ranged from U.S. foreign policy and the presidential election, all the way to the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and the liquor ban in Tiger Stadium.

Happy Birthday, Alley

1984 marked the 20th Anniversary of Free Speech Alley. Although years prior had seen a variety of topics at the Alley, the following year was a bit calmer. Well, in some sort.

The most heated discussion at the Alley in 1985 was the football seating policy. About 1,500 students gathered in the Alley to get their questions answered, but when they weren’t satisfied, they took their issues to the office of the athletic director.

Student Government Strikes Again

In the spring of 1986, Angelle Graves won the Student Government presidential election after a close race. Problems arose that summer, when her vice president didn’t show up for work. As a result, he was removed from office.

When students returned to campus for the fall semester, it seemed they were waiting for Graves to fail. Although she promised to lower tuition, she voted in favor of a $225 tuition increase. She then gave three sorority sisters various Student Government positions. An attempt to impeach her was unsuccessful.

Graves used Free Speech Alley as a place to defend her actions.

She later proposed a concert in Alex Box Stadium. But when tickets didn’t sell (at $6 each), she used Student Government money to pay for it. While it was then free for students, it cost $13,000, which came out of a fund for scholarships. Her reputation wasn’t saved when she later awarded her brother and other Student Government officers scholarships. 

Despite her unpopularity in office, she remained president for the entire term.

Global Concern

In April of 1989, students and intellectuals in China led the Tiananmen Square protests—they wanted economic and political reform. Locally, almost 400 students went to the Alley to demonstrate their support of democracy in China. 

Later that summer, students voiced their concern at the Alley when a proposed tuition increase of $95 per semester was being considered. In July of 1989, the Board of Supervisors approved a $48 increase, making each semester $930.

The Great Oaks

In 1990, campus heard the pleas and protests from students, faculty and alumni, all trying to save four oak trees and five Southern magnolias. The trees were in the way of the plans for a new athletic facility; and they would be removed.

Protestors voiced, in the past trees were saved and built around, instead of sacrificed for new construction.

Faux Crash

In late 1997, the Wellness Education Department and Residential Life sponsored a mock car crash near Free Speech Alley. This was an effort to show students the consequences of drinking and driving.

The crash participants were loaded up in ambulances as students watched in horror. Following the performance was a forum, where students spoke about the dangerous issue.

Speech Slows

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Free Speech Alley remained home to many religious speakers and hecklers, just as it had from day one. But, for the most part, heated discussions had left the Alley, making room for student clubs and organizations to promote their causes via booths and buses.

Art sales and blood drives surrounded the Alley, with the occasional campaign for a fee increase or an election.

One Nation

In the spring of 2011, a graduate student announced he was planning to burn an American flag at Free Speech Alley to defend America’s right to protest.

His announcement was greeted with counter-protests and, although he changed his mind and did not burn the flag after all, he was still met with pro-American chants from a large crowd. The university, as a state-funded institution, allowed both sides to display their opinions in order to respect the First Amendment.

The Alley Lives

During 40 years of tradition, the Alley has seen all types of issues—the calm and the controversial. Although times have changed, students are different and the college experience has evolved, in general, the Alley is there when the need arises for students to speak freely.