Q&A with West Below, president of SRJC’S Young Americans For Liberty chapter

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Priscilla Terry, Staff Writer

The Oak Leaf: Hi West, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us about yourself and Young Americans for Liberty? 

West Below: I am SRJC chapter president and free speech coordinator for Young Americans for Liberty (YAL). I’ve been in these positions since Summer 2019. I maintain a strong commitment to expressing and defending the ideas of liberty at the SRJC and beyond.

Young Americans for Liberty is a nationwide organization that mobilizes students to defend liberty on both their campuses and in state elections. We are proponents of free speech, free markets and individual liberty, among other topics.

OL: You held an event Sept. 7 for SRJC students called “Lockdowns vs. Liberty” which featured three prominent economics keynote speakers. What was the purpose of this event? 

Below: The purpose of the event was to challenge the narrative that draconian lockdowns are necessary and overall beneficial. California is the state with the strictest and most draconian restrictions on businesses, economic activity and individual lives. We at YAL are against such restrictions. Surrendering liberties to the government has proven in history to lead to individuals never getting their rights back.

We believe in a better solution, one based on voluntary measures and protecting the vulnerable instead of those low-risk individuals. Based on the facts, education quality is declining, rates of suicide are rising, mental health crises and domestic violence have spiked to historic levels, people can’t go to church or other places of worship and therefore are isolated from important communities. There is massive unemployment and a more totalitarian world, not just here in America, but in the entire world. I think there must be a better solution than the lockdowns we see in California and beyond.

OL: So you believe that a better solution to the lockdowns would be to have those who are most vulnerable of contracting COVID to shelter-in-place and not have the government impose on those who are at low-risk so that they may continue about their everyday lives, correct?

Below: Almost. We believe that we, the people should be able to decide whether or not to shelter in place. If you want to stay safe from COVID, you don’t want to risk getting it, that’s fine, don’t go out. If you want to live your life, you’re OK risking getting sick, just like with any other disease that has existed in the history of mankind, that’s great, you should be free to do so. You look at the numbers, the bulk of the deaths are in nursing homes. The government should enable nursing homes to take reasonable steps to protect those in their care, but it’s abhorrent to tread on the freedoms of everyone else.

OL: You mentioned that history has shown that governments are reluctant to give citizens their rights back once they are so freely stripped away. Do you believe that we will ever return ‘back to normal’ or do you think we should learn to accept this ‘new normal?’

Below: I’m just your average college student. I possess no psychic or precognitive ability, so I can’t say whether the “new normal” will remain normal through the end of time. I can’t see the future, but I can learn from the past. When America faces a crisis and gives more power to the government, the power stays when the crisis leaves. We’re approaching 9/11; that is a good example. The government got a whole host of new tools to monitor and spy on citizens, justifying it with the looming spectre of terrorism. Al-Queda’s leader was defeated in 2011, ISIS was crippled in 2019 with the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and it took until just this last week for the courts to declare the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata, which could be used to paint an invasive picture of an individual’s secret life, as unconstitutional.

OL: What is The Leadership Institute and how is it related to the ‘Lockdowns vs. Liberty event’?

West: They train conservative and libertarian leaders to be more effective activists. They were gracious enough to provide a large Zoom meeting room capable of hosting all our attendees, which helped a lot in making the event accessible to everyone.

OL: What are some of the initiatives you have taken on the SRJC campus as YAL chapter President and Free Speech Coordinator?

West: During the 2019-20 school year, our biggest focus was freedom of speech. SRJC had unconstitutional “free speech zones,” which limited students to express their cause to a small area of campus, about one-eighth of the total campus space. The U.S. Constitution guarantees all common outdoor spaces at publicly funded colleges as public grounds for First Amendment activities. Therefore, we fought hard to change these policies and often went outside of the free speech zones. Eventually, we were able to work with the JC administration and make these voluntary instead of required, and students can now speak their minds wherever on campus they please.

OL: Are free speech zones common practice on campuses? If so, why do you think this is so? What is their purpose from an administrative point of view?

West: As a free speech coordinator, I research a lot of college campuses and unfortunately the truth is yes, FSZ’s are common among both public and private colleges. If you asked a campus administrator, they’d be sure to say “it’s to protect the students and the learning environment.” But we shouldn’t judge rules and laws based on their intentions; we should judge them based on what their effect is. The power to control who speaks where often results in, again, abuses of power and having a double standard, one set of rules for students and groups the administration likes and another for students and groups the people in authority want to silence.

OL: What are your plans for this year? I heard you are trying to abolish the need for teacher advisers when establishing a college club. Tell us more about that.

West: Our plans for this year are to establish a strong base of student activists and then train and mobilize them to protect student liberties.

Some of the things we want to address include freedom of clubs. Clubs, by definition, should be run for the students, by the students. The way it stands now is you need a faculty adviser to be recognized by the JC as a club. We think that’s a sign of distrust of the students by the administration, and it suppresses clubs. Basic economic theory shows that the more barriers to entry there are, the less competition there is. That means there will be very few clubs that oppose the administration, since you need a member of the administration to commit to attending meetings. SRJC has less than half the clubs active as we did the 19-20 semester pre-COVID, so we need to do everything we can to support new clubs. I understand administrative concerns about keeping club money in good hands, but you shouldn’t have to have a faculty adviser just to be an ad-hoc club.

OL: Why is the school’s recognition of a club important?

Was it difficult for the SRJC YAL chapter to find teacher representation as a club? 

Below: School recognition of the clubs is very important. The SRJC has a list of clubs both on the website and the app, and interested students look there to find new clubs to join and how to contact them. Therefore, not having the club recognized makes it very difficult to recruit new members.

It was difficult for us to find a new club advisor after the old one left. Without an advisor, we had to borrow other clubs’ Zoom meeting rooms since the ICC denied our request to get $15 a month for a Zoom account (by the way, they give much more money to other clubs on the weekly) and we always ran the risk of the institution reprimanding us for not having our adviser present.

OL: Do you think it is harder for some politically driven clubs to find teacher representation over other politically driven clubs? If so, why? What threat does this pose? 

Below: Oh yes. As I’ve said earlier, if your group opposes what the administration wants you to believe, and you need a member of the administration to attend and monitor all club functions, that’s a great fault in the system. That leads to less diversity in what clubs students can find and join. SRJC administration loves to talk about how they want to protect diversity, so they should be more than happy to help fix this problem

OL: Lastly, what is your advice for any students who may feel that their free speech is silenced on campus or who may feel that their individual liberties are infringed upon as a result of government intervention in the wake of COVID-19?

Below: Never stay silent. Otherwise, the problems won’t change. Organize, protest, fight. Do not kneel to any man or woman who wishes to silence you.