Chalk on the quad: Oxy shouldn’t stifle freedom of speech


Last week, in response to the unauthorized use of chalk on college property to convey pro-Trump sentiments, Vice President for Inclusion and Equity and Chief Diversity Officer Rhonda Brown sent an email to the Occidental community expressing concern for the impact such messages may have on the student body. Brown had received complaints from students whose feelings were hurt by the chalk, and, fitting right into the culture of mainstream Occidental, sensed that they needed some coddling.

Occidental has a tradition of claiming to uphold free speech, often citing its importance in an academic setting. But, in practice, the promise is hollow. Contradictory actions by the administration, such as pandering to students’ sensitivity (as in Brown’s email) and implementing policies (like the Dean of Students’ bias incident reporting system, proposed microaggressions reporting system and “Posting and Publicity” policy) that stifle free speech, demonstrate the college’s rejection of true diversity of thought.

If Occidental hopes to one day live up to its mission to “provide … a total educational experience of the highest quality — one that prepares them for leadership in an increasingly complex, interdependent and pluralistic world,” then they must end their blatant repression of freedom of thought.

The college’s “Posting and Publicity” policy — requiring approval from the Office of Student Life (OSL) before posting signs or using chalk on sidewalks — poses a barrier to free speech perhaps even larger than the bias incident and proposed microaggressions reporting system because it more directly institutionalizes repression of speech. Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Life Tamara Himmelstein said that the purpose of the policy, which has existed for as long as she can remember, is to prevent the campus from being inundated with flyers, posters and chalk, not to limit speech.

“Our policy is content neutral — we are managing the time, place and manner for postings,” she said via email.

But the effect of the policy is much greater than preventing logistical chaos. Even if the intent is not to limit speech, it does exactly that by creating an obstacle for expression, requiring students to traverse the bureaucracy in order to communicate their ideas via posters, chalk, etc. In essence, the college tells students, “You have free speech, except that you need to get our permission first.” This regulation appears asinine in relation to the very meaning of free speech.

Additionally, on more than one occasion, the policy has been used as a manipulative tool to control students’ speech (and not merely as a “content neutral” mechanism for limiting the quantity of speech). Brown’s response to the pro-Trump chalking, exemplifying the college’s frequently contradictory stance, stated that the freedom of speech extends to political speech, but that the messages would be removed because the perpetrator did not receive prior approval from the OSL.

In another instance, acting Dean of Students Erica O’Neal Howard removed an Oxy United for Black Liberation banner hung by students at the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center on the first day of the semester in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. An anonymous source said that Howard threatened students with disciplinary actions if they chose not to obey the policy in the future.

These repressive policies are likely illegal. As a private college in California, Occidental is subject to the Leonard Law, passed by the legislature in 1992, which extends First Amendment rights (including free speech) to private educational institutions.

But the broader issue at Occidental is not the repressive policies themselves, but rather the campus culture that promotes the protection of students’ feelings at the expense of free speech. Instead of encouraging students to engage in dialogue, Occidental indulges certain students’ desire for an environment in which they will be protected from viewpoints they do not agree with.

I am not defending Trump’s ideas themselves. Rather, like any other opinions, his should be challenged, but not silenced. The chalking in the quad played into the repugnant nature of Trump’s campaign, including the messages “f— women” and “#buildthatwall.” But, regardless of its profane and offensive content, this speech is protected by the law and should be protected at Occidental.

In her email, Brown reinforced the idea that students should be protected from speech, alienating Trump supporters by claiming that their beliefs stood in opposition to diversity at Occidental (rather than contributing to it).

“[Students] are acutely aware of how some campaign slogans in this year’s presidential race have served as surrogates for opposition to the kind of diverse, inclusive community we are striving to build here at Oxy,” she wrote.

Such a response demonstrates a total lack of understanding of what diversity truly is. All students, regardless of their beliefs, should be accepted as part of the Occidental community. No one should be told, especially when they are part of a political minority, that they are not a crucial component of Occidental’s diverse campus.

Brown also conflated the expression of political beliefs with personal attacks.

“[The removal of the chalk under the posting policy] does not address the broader issues raised by students who see the chalkings as messages aimed directly at them,” she wrote. “We can’t wash those feelings away so easily.”

Being validated by someone who shares your beliefs (and thereby sheltered from ideas you disagree with), while comforting, serves no educational purpose.

Educator and Marxist philosopher Paulo Freire famously discussed the nature of education as a political instrument of indoctrination in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

“[The banking model of education] turns [students] into ‘containers’ to be ‘filled’ by the teacher,” he wrote. “The more completely [they fill] the receptacles, the better a teacher [they are]. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.”

This is what Occidental is today. I am angry, I am offended and I am hurt that the school I have chosen to attend does its damndest to impose a homogeneous ideology on its students.

As someone who does not fit into Occidental’s leftist mold, I know that every time I walk into class I will face conflict. I will hear opinions from professors and students with which I disagree, and I will be offended. And, oftentimes, I will have to decide if I value my beliefs more than my grade.

But despite what feels like a constant battle, I am grateful for my experience at Occidental. I have learned and grown as a direct result of my beliefs being constantly challenged. My experience — this exposure to viewpoints that differ from my own — should be the norm, rather than the exception, for Occidental to provide the best education it possibly can. Without exception, differing viewpoints must result in discourse, not silence, for all of us, as students, to truly learn and grow.

Dylan Bordonaro is a senior politics major. He can be reached