The MU Speakers Circle is an intersection for campus life and a forum — sometimes impromptu — for public discourse. People talk about anything: politics, human rights, feminism, religion, rape awareness or voter registration.
A concrete space warmed by overflowing planters, Speakers Circle is situated just outside the Arts and Science building where Ninth Street curves into Conley Avenue. Designed like a subtle amphitheater, the low steps circle gradually down to a central point – forming either an ideal stage or just another open space on campus.
Some days the circle is deserted, filling only when students flood out of one class and through it to another. Other days, the circle is crowded with people listening to, or arguing with, the various speakers who use the area to share their ideas with anyone who will stop to listen.
During the week of Sept. 27, Missourian reporters took turns watching life in Speakers Circle. Here is what we saw.
“No! No! No!” Nikki Antimi, an officer with the MU Police Department, yelled as she pummeled Sgt. Brett Barnes to the ground with repeated blows.
Some students smiled as they walk by. Others stared, curious.
The demonstration was part of an annual push by campus police to make students aware of rape aggression defense, a class offered by the department.
“We like to do (the demonstration) out in the open,” Officer Jenna Redel said.
Campus police presented 15 to 20 demonstrations, beginning at noon. For the officers, Speakers Circle was a good setting because so many students could see what they were doing.
“We’re just trying to get some attention,” Redel said.
Techniques for drawing the attention of those students vary by speaker.
“It increases interest when they mock me and heckle me,” Jed Smock said on a different day. He is a preacher who brings his conservative views to college campuses across the nation and is now based in Columbia.
Smock’s technique for drawing a crowd begins when he shouts controversial points of his doctrine to passers-by. He said the center of the circle has the best acoustics, making it unnecessary to use a megaphone — a device he finds discouraging to dialogue.
His goal is to get people to stop and listen and then to engage them in discussion, and if there’s one thing Smock’s speeches generate, it’s a lot of discussion.
Circe Valenzuela, an MU student, stopped to listen to Smock. She said she thinks the speakers should be more responsible with their use of the circle.
“It’s free speech,” Valenzuela said. “But there should be some respect.”
Other students see it from a more light-hearted perspective.
“This is my biggest form of entertainment,” Aisha Quidwal said as she listened to Smock compete for an audience with speakers from the United Activist Network, an umbrella organization for certain student groups.
Jutting from each side and pointing to the center of the circle, short walls serve as dividers or as stages. On this day, Smock arranged his chair on one wall while, on the opposing wall, representatives of the activist network read essays about their causes into a megaphone. Because the network is not an official student organization, it cannot reserve meeting space on campus, so Speaker’s Circle is an ideal place to organize and vocalize.
While Kristen Topp, president of the Feminist Student Union, an arm of the network, shouted myths and realities about rape into her megaphone, Smock, minus a megaphone, shouted back counterperspectives — for example, saying that women who dress provocatively are asking to be raped.
Smock’s comments provoked an indignant and passionate response; but he remained cool, sticking to his strategy of drawing a crowd through controversy.
“I was trying to help them out, in a way, by heckling them a bit,” Smock said.
“You have to be outspoken, otherwise the issues you care about won’t be paid attention to,” said Adele Coble, president of Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, another member of the network.
As the activists and Smock squared off, members of America Coming Together circulated through the crowd, registering students to vote. Meanwhile, the College Democrats passed out fliers promoting a coming event.
As the activists concluded and Smock moved to the center ring, a larger crowd gathered to gawk at the spectacle of Smock and his sign listing the types of people going to hell. One student called a friend to report all Smock was saying as another took a picture with his camera phone.
The public discussion continued throughout the afternoon as students settled onto the steps to listen or speak. It was another day, another week, at Speakers Circle — where public discussion and interaction is encouraged, where no subject is taboo and where the community can gather to exercise its right to speak freely.
Or to keep right on walking.
Missourian reporters Cathy Chou, Paul Dziuba, Jenn Fields and Dan Nejfelt contributed to this article.