Harvard University – March 30, 2017

Free Speech bus with conservative message sparks student backlash

Cambridge, MA

Harvard students and Cambridge, Massachusetts, residents protested the presence of the “Free Speech Bus,” a project funded by the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Protesters wrote “HATE SPEECH BUS” on it and harassed a staffer for NOM.

Key Players

Joseph Grabowski is director of communications for NOM. He was harassed by protesters while descending from the “Free Speech Bus.”

Sheehan D. Scarborough is director of Harvard College’s Office of BGLTQ Student Life. Scarborough sent an email to students helping them prepare for the bus’s arrival in Cambridge.

Further Details

The “Free Speech Bus” is a political advertising tool sponsored by conservative action groups including NOM, CitizenGO, and the International Organization for the Family. While conducting a tour of East Coast cities, it made a stop at Harvard to criticize its support of transgender rights and the LGBTQ agenda. The bus parked across the street from Harvard Hall.

Protesters were on the scene when the bus arrived. While they waved rainbow flags and held signs that read “Trans is beautiful,” the writing on the bus read, “It’s Biology: Boys are boys… and always will be. Girls are girls… and always will be. You can’t change sex.” The conservative organizations funding the “Free Speech Bus” hoped it would spark a debate “that tries to accommodate for everyone,” Joseph Grabowski, director of communications for NOM, told The Harvard Crimson. “Unfortunately, it’s a very one-sided policy debate right now because of the fact that the noisy minority has been able to shout down the other side,” Grabowski added.

When Grabowski exited the bus, protesters “crowded around him, making explicit gestures and attempting to drape a rainbow pride flag over his shoulders,” according to The Crimson. Protesters also used permanent markers to write “HATE SPEECH BUS” and “Hate is not welcome here” on the vehicle.

While the bus was parked near Harvard Hall, the Office of BGLTQ Student Life hung a banner in the nearby Science Center Plaza that said “Trans Lives Matter” and invited those walking by to write their name on the sign. One undergraduate student named Lily Velona signed the banner and expressed frustration over the bus’s use of the term “free speech.” “I’ve been seeing lot [sic] of this as of late, where people are conflating free speech and hate speech,” Velona told The Crimson. “Hate speech is not protected speech. It’s not free speech. No one has the right to use hate speech.”

The Office of BGLTQ Student Life also sent undergraduate students a message of support. “Our lives are the punctuation mark on this debate, because at the end of the day, queer, and trans, and gender non-binary people exist,” wrote Office Director Sheehan Scarborough. “No message on a bus can cast a shadow on the radiant spectrum of light that is the awesome diversity of our human experience,” she said.

The Free Speech Bus also stopped at the Massachusetts State House. In response, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh raised the transgender flag on City Hall Plaza.


The “Free Speech Bus” was Vandalized by Students

Students used permanent markers to vandalize the bus with messages that accused it and its sponsors of promoting hate speech.

The University Provided Resources to Protect Trans Students

Through its Office of BGLTQ Student Life, Harvard College took the side of students offended by the bus and its message and provided counter messaging in the form of a banner that read “Trans Lives Matter.”

External References:

Free Speech Bus Tour Schedule

Students Protest Anti-Transgender ‘Free Speech’ Bus at Harvard, The Harvard Crimson

BGLTQ Office Prepares For Visit of Anti-Transgender ‘Free Speech’ Bus, The Harvard Crimson

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

August 22, 2017