By Arielle Robinson
The New Georgia Project hosted a protest Friday, March 25, on Kennesaw State University’s Campus Green, where students joined them in protesting an anti-abortion group that was on the Green that week.
“You’re bringing graphic, traumatizing, triggering, and distracting images to the campus I spend tens of thousands of dollars to attend,” KSU student and former Cobb Board of Education Post 4 candidate Austin Heller said at the rally. “I should not be traumatized…when I’m walking across campus.”
The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform is a countrywide anti-abortion organization whose executive director is a former Pennsylvania House Representative. Its southeastern headquarters are in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The extremist group has attracted controversy nationwide, even from some pro-lifers, for displaying graphic images they claim to be of abortions and aborted fetuses at university campuses and other public settings.
The CBR has been accused of making misleading or false use of images.
During the week of March 21, CBR members were at KSU.
Wednesday and Thursday, students decided to confront and protest the group that compares abortions to genocide and white supremacist violence like lynchings.
In particular, the CBR has a “Genocide Awareness Project.”
At the public university last week, CBR members compared abortion to the Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, and Ku Klux Klan violence, among other historic tragedies.
Although the group was not on campus Friday, students joined the NGP in what the latter called a rally for truth and reproductive justice.
They said they wanted to draw awareness to the fact that they were extremely disturbed by graphic images being shown in an area thousands of students walk past each day.
They also asked why KSU has repeatedly signed off on allowing the group to come to campus without warning students of the bloody images they may run into.
Heller said he respects First Amendment rights but that the images are harmful to students and ones who may have had abortions in particular.
“The least y’all can do as a Kennesaw State administration is to send an email saying that they’re [showing] triggering images on our campus,” Heller said. “Let students know to take the back route to class…It’s not like y’all have any lack of emails to send out when you’re collecting my tuition.”
NGP lead organizer Kristen Vermetten said that the main problems the organization has with the CBR is the lack of fact-checking and the racism of the mostly-white group.
“Protesting happens on most college campuses at some point…that wasn’t what was the bad signal for us,” Vermetten said. “What upset us were the completely inaccurate facts that were being presented about Black women and Black communities from the protesters that were coming here for pro-life on Wednesday and Thursday.”
In the past, the CBR has displayed “All Black Lives Matter” signs.
Vermetten said she wrote down phrases the CBR was using and had a research team fact-check them.
“…It’s really traumatic,” Vermetten said. “In fact, [some of the signs read and people said] ‘Black women getting abortions is what suppresses the Black vote,’ ‘more Black babies have died from abortion than lynchings from the KKK,’ stuff like that…There should be intellectual integrity on campus where if you’re going to allow these protests to happen, cool, but if they’re going to violently attack Black women in that protest with misinformation, we’re going to show up and fact-check for you. That’s the objective and the idea.”
KSU student Theresa Washington held a sign that said she knew someone who had an abortion. She said it was a loved one.
“Abortion is not the sort of demon that people make it out to be,” Washington said. “…It’s literally just a medical procedure and it doesn’t deserve to be controlled as much as it has since the 70s.”
Washington and another KSU student Jae Stokes said that the university in recent years has made many concessions to conservative groups because of lawsuits right-wing student organizations have brought against the school.
They alluded to the Ratio Christi lawsuit in 2018 when a KSU Christian student group wanted to set up an anti-abortion display on the Green.
Ratio Christi settled a freedom of expression lawsuit with the university after they initially said the university denied their request to display their setup. The Christian group said the university instead directed them to a campus “speech zone” not visible to many.
The KSU chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group, sued the university the same year, claiming that the university discriminated against them for their “controversial” views.
These lawsuits led to KSU adopting a new freedom of expression policy.
The policy marks the Kennesaw campus’ Green zones 1-7, a highly visible area, as one of two “Designated Campus Areas” where KSU student organizations and outside groups can express their First Amendment rights.
The designated area on the Marietta campus is near the Globe between the administration building and Joe Mack Wilson Student Center.
Outside organizations can only participate in “expressive activity” in the designated campus areas and must submit a reservation request form to the Office of the Dean of Students at least four university business days prior to the event, the policy states.
A Division of Student Affairs official must confirm the approval to the outside group in writing.
Washington and Stokes agreed that they wish KSU would promote the diversity of opinion they always talk about.
“The KSU admin really does favor conservatism and it’s really sick to see,” Stokes said. “Because when leftist organizations — I mean, we’re with [Young Democratic Socialists of America], it’s like pulling teeth trying to get them to allow us to do anything.”
Back at the protest, the crowd chanted slogans in favor of what they call reproductive justice.
Nick Miller, a Democratic candidate for House District 35, attended the rally and briefly spoke in favor of abortion rights.
“Every year we send folks to the state house and we have white men talking about women’s bodies,” Miller said.
The candidate said it is important that people put demands on people like him so that abortion rights can be protected.
Vermetten said after the protest that being pro-choice goes beyond just abortions and that is why the group uses the term reproductive justice.
“Reproductive justice is the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities,” Vermetten said. “Reproductive justice is also having a baby, but having a baby in a safe way. Black women’s [maternal] mortality rates are through the roof in Georgia. Do you know that Georgia is ranked third as the worst health care in the country?
“That affects people being able to even have that child,” she said. “Reproductive justice is also trans rights, reproductive justice is also LGBTQ+ rights. It’s anything that has to do with you being able to have that ownership over your body and make decisions for yourself. That’s truly reproductive justice. Abortion can be a part of that.”
NGP is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that registers people to vote and engage in the electoral process.
The group registered a few students who passed by the protest to vote.
Vermetten and other speakers connected reproductive justice to the right to vote.
“Bodily autonomy is the main crux of reproductive justice,” Vermetten said. “Abortion rights are a part of reproductive justice but it’s not the only aspect of reproductive justice. Bodily autonomy is what we’re promoting and bodily autonomy is also included in your voting rights. It is your right to go and exercise your vote.
“SB 202 happened a year ago and the community that was targeted by these pro-life protesters are the same community that’s been targeted by this voting rights legislation that was passed…And so that’s the thing, to have ownership over oneself is reproductive justice. Having ownership over oneself is being able to exercise the right to vote.”
NGP organizers said that this will not be their last time at KSU.
“If [the CBR] had been here today, we could have protested right next to them,” Vermetten said. “It’s all of our rights to speak up and state our opinions. For me, I wanted to come today to show these awesome students that we have solutions when you see something you don’t agree with. It’s not always the best call to go toe-to-toe with someone. The best thing to do to effectuate change is organize amongst ourselves. That’s how you build power. And that’s how you create change.”
When the Courier reached out to KSU to ask about specifics on them signing off on CBR being there and why they did not notify students ahead of time about the graphic images, a spokeswoman sent the following statement:
“Kennesaw State is committed to providing a safe and secure learning environment that encourages the free and respectful exchange of ideas and speech. As a public institution of higher education, the university also has a constitutional responsibility to uphold the free speech rights of all individuals, without regard to content. This responsibility does not come without the realization that some views may be contradictory to the mission and values of the institution or of students, faculty and staff. However, the university holds the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the right to assemble peaceably as essential rights for all.
For more information about Kennesaw State’s Freedom of Expression Policy, please visit: publicforum.kennesaw.edu.”