BATON ROUGE, LA (NBC33) — It was a scene unlike any witnessed on LSU’s campus in years. What was supposed to be a peaceful protest nearly turned violent when a counter protest compromised the safety of all involved.
Last Wednesday, May 11, LSU graduate student Benjamin Haas planned to peacefully burn a flag to promote his First Amendment rights. The purpose was to call attention to the arrest of LSU student Isaac Eslava, 23, who is accused of cutting down and burning the University’s American flag two weeks ago.
A “patriotic” counter-protest lead by Cody Wells was organized due the announcement that Haas planned on burning an American flag. Haas says he did change his mind and decided against burning the flag, and only planned to read a written statement.
The counter-protest consisted of hundreds of students, and their outrage nearly turned to violence against Haas. Not only was Haas not allowed to read his statement, but he was escorted off the premises by LSU Police for his own safety. While reading his statement, the protestors threw water balloons at Haas, and subsequently landed on directly on our NBC33 Photographer.
In the days following the display, an online petition filed on Change.org expressed discontent with a public statement made by LSU Chancellor Michael Martin. The petition stated, “When LSU's Chancellor did nothing to denounce the violent mob - even praising the ‘patriotism’ of the ‘counter-protest’ - one of Benjamin's former professors created a petition to urge Chancellor Martin to denounce the actions of the violent mob.”
NBC33 News contacted the office of Chancellor Martin on Friday, May 13 in regards to the online petition. At that time they were not aware of the public request. We then forwarded a link to LSU’s Media Relations. At the time, the Chancellor had no statement. However, on Saturday, May 14, Chancellor Martin issued the following clarification:
“Much attention has been given to Wednesday's Free Speech Alley activities when a student announced his intention to burn the American flag on the LSU campus and a group of concerned students led by Cody Wells responded by organizing a patriotic counter-protest demonstration,” Chancellor Martin said in a release published on LSU’s website. “What ensued was a decision by the student to only read a statement, but by that time a passionate response had developed and turned into a large and in part unruly gathering of individuals who objected to the original intent to burn the flag.
“Let me make these points clear: I do not condone the burning of the flag but I defend the right for someone to express their freedom of speech by doing so. I applaud the many who responded with great passion to speak up for what their flag represents, and that was the purpose of the inspiring patriotic counter-protest that was organized by Mr. Wells. But I do not condone the behavior of that portion of the crowd who, prior to Mr. Wells' counter-protest, resorted to verbal threats and physical actions against the student while and after he tried to read his statement.
“With Freedom of Speech comes personal responsibility. In expressing our opinions we must recognize the impact of our actions and also act responsibly in response to differing opinions.
“There is a reason Free Speech Alley has endured for more than a half century at LSU. It is a place for students to openly express their opinions no matter which side of a debate they support. It has been witness to debates about Vietnam, Watergate, 9-11, confederate flags, political differences, religious freedoms and campus controversies. At LSU we stand for respectful free speech dialogue and civil discourse that does not involve outrageous conduct.”
The petition on Change.org is now listed as a “Victory.”