DANVILLE — Robert Kunst of Shalom International called President Barack Obama "a jihadist" for "allowing Iran to build nukes," then apologized if his candor had offended anyone.
It hadn't. Hardly anyone was listening to him.
Centre College restricted protesters like Kunst to a fenced-in athletic field at the south edge of campus designated "Speakers Park" on Thursday. Far from the day's festivities surrounding the vice presidential debate, further isolated by security checkpoints, the field was empty of nearly anyone but the groups that had registered for a chance to speak for up to 20 minutes. National news media, students, visitors — they were all several blocks away.
"It really takes away from the entire purpose of the event here today, which is to promote democracy at the grass-roots level," said Daniel Morgan, a member of the social-justice '''group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. Morgan stood behind a table, prepared to hand KFTC leaflets to anyone who might show up.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
About two dozen people from different activist groups chatted among themselves as six state police troopers watched.
By sequestering protesters away from the crowds, Centre College was following the model of recent national political conventions, which have designated "Free Speech Zones" a good distance from the convention halls. It's a regrettable trend, said Buck Ryan, director of the Citizens Kentucky Project at the University of Kentucky Scripps Howard First Amendment Center.
"First Amendment rights, like other civil rights, tend to fly away in wartime," Ryan said. "We're in a place now with the crazy, mixed-up world we live in with terrorism, where a large secured zone is set up around all these events."
But Centre College established a Speakers Park when it hosted its first vice presidential debate in 2000, before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Clarence Wyatt, co-chairman of the college's debate steering committee. It seemed the best way to balance free speech with the need to control the locations where crowds gather and high-profile politicians are expected, Wyatt said.
"It's on campus," Wyatt said. "It's as close as can be to the Norton Center, notwithstanding the restrictions that have been put in place, like security."
Don Pratt, veteran of countless Central Kentucky demonstrations, said he had wanted to come to Centre College on Thursday with signs protesting mountaintop-removal coal mining. However, Pratt said, it seemed like a pointless exercise after college officials explained that he could not carry his signs outside the debate hall, at the music festival or at other campus locations where people gathered.
"I find it terribly offensive," Pratt said from Lexington. "It's like saying you can have free speech except we're putting you in the closet over in the corner and you can talk only to yourself. We don't want anybody to see you. We're more worried about our image."
Pratt said he has protested outside of buildings that held visiting presidents of the United States "and we didn't have any problems."
Jonathan Miller, the former state treasurer, gave a short speech at Speakers Park about the need to reduce the national debt. As he climbed down from the small stage, a young woman told Miller it's a shame so few people were there to hear him.
"Well, I think there's supposed to be a good crowd here today," Miller said. He pointed uphill and to the north. "But it's somewhere up that-a-way."