College display emphasized free speech, individual rights

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SHERIDAN — A recent display at the Sheridan College Kooi Library encouraged students to ponder their rights and answer thought-provoking questions.

The Democracy Square display focused on free speech and the Bill of Rights, which is composed of the first ten amendments to the United State Constitution. The display stood for the first two weeks of November because of local, state and national midterm elections that occurred Nov. 6.

Sheridan College library specialist Michelle Boule Smith created the display and said it is likely the first of its kind at Sheridan College. Boule Smith drew inspiration from several other colleges and universities across the nation who had similar Democracy Squares. She said it ideally encouraged students to mull over different ideas related to civic duty.

Boule Smith set up the display to be as passive as possible, but it still was interactive and encouraged participation. The Democracy Square had the first 10 amendments posted on the library walls and a question related to each amendment. Construction paper was on the walls next to the questions, with writing utensils for students to jot down their answers. Free pocket versions of the Constitution sat on chairs below with a few questions as well.

“I wanted to offer the students a way to exercise some free speech in a non-threatening way,” Boule Smith said. “The Bill of Rights was an easy place to start. A lot of [the amendments] have some current event things happening around them that are important.”

Boule Smith tried to come up with questions that were not purposefully controversial or incendiary and didn’t focus on personal identities.

“I felt like that would give room for people to be more confrontational,” Boule Smith said. “I wanted this to be, not just more intellectual, but I really wanted them to think about it. I tried to ask questions that were provocative without provoking people to saying something that would be very offensive and hurtful to somebody else.”

Boule Smith said there were some funny responses, in addition to many thoughtful and interesting ones. She particularly appreciated the various answers to the first, second and sixth amendments.

The first amendment prompt focused on protests and if some should be outlawed, such as kneeling to bring attention to social and racial injustice during the playing of the national anthem at sporting events. Most of the answers said kneeling should be allowed, even if one doesn’t agree with the message, pointing to the difference between a peaceful and violent protest. A few responded against the protests, saying that they disrespected military members.

The second amendment question asked if universal background checks on firearms would go against the rights given in the second amendment. Most of the respondents answered no. One answered yes but suggested making firearm training mandatory.

The question for the sixth amendment focused on if a neglectful public defender fulfills the need for a criminal defendant’s right to an attorney. Responses were mixed, with a few saying it would qualify and a few saying it wouldn’t. One answer said a neglectful public defender would qualify but noted that the criminal justice system needs to improve.

Moreover, Boule Smith said the topic of information literacy in her English 1010 class has led to quality discussions.

“We talk about how to be good consumers of information, what makes information good, parallel reading, reading upstream and double-checking things,” Boule Smith said. “That has sparked some really good and interesting conversations with the students and we’ve had pretty good outcomes with the stuff they turn in after that with their papers. I feel pretty strongly about supporting good journalism and helping students to understand how to consume things properly.”

Boule Smith said the library might have similar displays in the future, likely with a few prompts at a time for amendments 11 through 27. 

The Democracy Square display was likely the first of its kind at Sheridan College, but with many interesting responses, it probably won’t be the last.

By |Nov. 16, 2018|

About the Author:

Ryan Patterson joined The Sheridan Press staff as a reporter covering education, business and sports in August 2017. He's a native of Wisconsin and graduated from Marquette University with a bachelor's in journalism in May 2017. Email him at: ryan.patterson@thesheridanpress.com.

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