Every fall, the University of Minnesota invites student groups to paint a pedestrian bridge connecting East and West campus with whatever they feel best represents what they’re about. This year, the College Republicans reserved a panel to advertise the Trump-Pence ticket along with the classic Trumpism, “Build the Wall.”
There were protests.
Liberal student groups called the mural “hate speech,” part of the anti-immigrant mania sweeping the country. Immediately, and not at all unexpectedly, one student took a can of gold spray paint and scratched out the offending message with “Stop White Supremacy.”
In response, College Republicans mustered great indignity, releasing a statement defending the building of a wall as a bipartisan idea, and denouncing the vandalism as running “contrary to free speech.”
Finally, U president Eric Kaler jumped in to admonish the vandals.
“While [the College Republicans’ mural] is protected as free, political speech, we have heard from members of our community who find the phrase hurtful, offensive, anti-immigrant, and anti-Latinx,” he said in a statement. “People in our community may disagree with the sentiment expressed. However, while the university values free speech, the subsequent vandalism of the panel is not the way to advance a conversation.”
Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the breakdown of communication between the students. If ever there were two statements facing off from opposing ideological viewpoints, thrust out into the world without even the pretention of “advancing a conversation,” these would be it.
Kaler’s right about one thing: slogans and sound bites aren’t a good way to do that. In hindsight, a classier response would have been the Sigma Lambda Beta brothers' neighboring panel calling for "Building bridges, not walls," punctuated with cheeky smiley face.
But perhaps more concerning is how all this back-and-forth about free speech, hate speech, and censorship reveals how confused everyone is about the First Amendment.
First of all, hate speech is protected free speech. This country bravely allows terrible people to say all manner of terrible things in the name of liberty, and allows others to publicly shame them for doing so.
Secondly, free speech is protected from censorship by the government, not from regular folks. The difference between Betsy Hodges banning City Pages from the streets and a dissatisfied reader wadding up a copy and setting it on fire is the difference between censorship and reader engagement.
Sadly, apart from failing to learn what free speech means, some students at the U apparently failed to learn how to spell as well.
The College Republicans misspelled their own name on the mural as “Collge Republicans.” Time to review the basics.