In campus free speech debate, nobody's really winning

People walk near the Washington Avenue Bridge
An incident on the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus has become a flashpoint in the simmering debate over free speech on college campuses playing out across Minnesota and the country this election season.
Sam Harper for MPR News

On the last days of September at one of the University of Minnesota's busiest spots, students took part in a yearly ritual: Decorating panels on the Washington Avenue Bridge's pedestrian walkway to promote their student groups.

The innocuous campus tradition went on just like any other year — the panels were whitewashed ahead of time and student groups signed up to paint sections of the walkway — until the College Republicans started painting a message pulled from presidential candidate Donald Trump's immigration proposals: "Build the Wall." That was on Friday.

By Saturday morning, someone had scrawled "Stop White Supremacy"on the panel in gold paint, obscuring the Republicans' three-word slogan.

It was an act of vandalism — or an act of free speech, depending on who you ask.

Those two layers of paint on that panel on the bridge have become a flashpoint in the simmering debate over free speech on college campuses across Minnesota and beyond. The incident reflects the deep political polarization playing out across the nation this election season.

Painted bridge panel
By Saturday, Oct. 1, "Stop White Supremacy" obscured the College Republican group's "Build the Wall" message, which went up a day earlier.
Jacob Steinberg | Courtesy of Minnesota Daily

And on campus, what was meant to be a simple political statement by College Republicans quickly spun into personal attacks and a flare of public vitriol.

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"People were saying the most horrific things," said Madison Faupel, president of the university's College Republicans chapter. "They were sharing pictures of me from high school saying that I'm a racist and that I'm a bigot and that I'm going to hell and that I hate different races."

That gold paint over "Build the Wall" worried Faupel. It was vandalism that verged on an infringement of students' free speech rights, she thought. And it went further: She said she received death threats after the incident. More than a month later, no individual or group has taken responsibility for the painting-over.

The incident was rough for Guillermo Perez, too, but in a different way. The second-year student, who's Mexican-American, said the "Build the Wall" rhetoric attacks Latinos, and immigrants in general.

To him, it's not an innocent campaign slogan. "It tells us we're not welcome in this country," said Perez, a self-described liberal.

To the College Republicans, though, that paint on the bridge was simply an expression of their views on immigration policy — and an exercise in free speech. Perez and others have likened the "Build the Wall" panel to hate speech — and suggest that obscuring the phrase with a counter-message is just another expression of free speech.

This political season, the divide between liberal and conservative students' views on free speech is often demonstrated in the rhetorical styles of the two main presidential candidates.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump speak during a town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis in October.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images file

Republican nominee Donald Trump regularly throws political correctness to the wind. His notorious off-script monologues have offended many, inspired others and, in one example, challenged one of the core values of U.S. democracy by threatening to contest the results of the election.

In contrast, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton often speaks in the careful, calculated tone of a seasoned politician during her public appearances.

And on often left-leaning campuses — one recent survey found that a majority of students have identified as Democrats since at least 2001 — young conservatives say they're heard best when they shout, in some ways mirroring Trump's rise to the 2016 ticket.

"Being the conservative group on campus, you almost have to cause a little bit of noise to get any attention, to stand for free speech," said Blake Kraussel, a graduate student and former writer for the right-wing campus publication Minnesota Republic.

Partisanship is on the rise this year, according to the Pew Research Center. Almost half of Democrats or Republicans said the other party makes them angry.

And while independents now outnumber members of both major parties, the growing ideological gulf between liberals and conservatives is evident on the University of Minnesota campus, too, laid bare in the fallout of the bridge incident, which became much bigger than just some paint on a wall.

And while college is often considered to be a time for gaining exposure to new ideas and people, it appears that students are beginning to sort themselves into groups of people who are like them.

"While some people will participate in this really extravagant kind of diversification of views in their lives, I think another group of people are seeking the safety that comes from like-minded, like-identified people," said Abeer Syedah, the university's student body president.

For some students, seeking out safe spaces is a shelter from ideas they find distasteful, like "Build the Wall."

People walk near The Washington Avenue Bridge.
People walk on the University of Minnesota's East Bank near the Washington Avenue Bridge in late October.
Sam Harper for MPR News

At the same time, conservatives will often accuse the left of being overly sensitive or too politically correct.

Faupel, the College Republicans president, considers conservative columnist Ben Shapiro her political idol. Shapiro is known for saying, "Facts don't care about your feelings" — and Faupel takes that approach to heart.

"Although that is not the most sensitive thing, that is kind of where I stand," she said. "I stand with fact over feeling."

Candidate Trump has mostly avoided traditional ideas of sensitivity and accuracy when talking about many groups of people. Building the border wall is a focal point of Trump's immigration plan. He once called for banning Muslim people from immigrating to the U.S. He suggested that Mexico's government is sending drugs and criminals across the border.

"Donald Trump's delivery is tough," Faupel said. "It kind of amazes me still that he's our party candidate, but he is."

But the political left, Faupel said, goes too far in the other direction. She thinks her liberal counterparts focus too much on the tone and delivery of a message rather than its content. And she was matter-of-fact in talking about the College Republicans' decision to paint "Build the Wall" on their bridge panel. We stand by the candidate and his platform, she said, and that includes the border wall.

The intention wasn't to offend anyone, Faupel said, though she acknowledged that conservatives "do have to say things that are a little bit more 'out there' to get attention," a feeling echoed by many of her peers.

But Brian Ung, a fifth-year student at the university, said that "Build the Wall" feels to him like hate speech.

To be clear: The legal definition for prosecutable hate speech is very narrow. It must specifically promote immediate, unlawful action. Everything up until that point is protected speech, no matter who it hurts.

Either way, Ung said, the College Republicans' message was indefensible.

"If you see someone else's pain and you know how much this hurts them," he said, "why would you still keep that message?"

University President Eric Kaler took a more nuanced approach after the incident, saying in a statement that the Republicans' painting was a display of free, protected speech. The "Stop White Supremacy" message, he said, was vandalism.

"People in our community may disagree with the sentiment expressed," the statement said. "However, while the University values free speech, the subsequent vandalism of the panel is not the way to advance a conversation."

That satiated College Republicans, and the national right-wing vanguard Brietbart, which lauded Kaler for what they considered a defense of the First Amendment. Others weren't so pleased, taking to social media and a public protest to criticize the university president.

Protesting at campus event
Students protest University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler's response to the bridge painting incident as student body president Abeer Syedah (left, on stage) and Kaler (center, on stage) look on.
Easton Green | Courtesy of Minnesota Daily

The disagreements over what can be considered free speech in the bridge incident, Syedah said, might be a clashing of two camps that have each "found safety" in people who think like they do.

And at least on the conservative side, this self-sorting is playing into the presidential election.

Amanda Peterson, head of Minnesota College Republicans, a statewide group, said support for Trump is still growing among her organization, and daily life on campus is part of the reason.

"After being on these liberal campuses and dealing with their liberal administrations and whatnot," she said, "they've decided to support Trump when they wouldn't have previously because they're so fed up with [politically correct] culture and stuff like that, or just how Republicans are treated on campus."

One example, in particular, was troubling for College Republicans across the state, she said: A woman at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter was verbally assaulted for wearing a Trump hat on campus.

For several days after the incident, she walked with campus escorts, and has kept her identity a secret since then.

And at a University of Minnesota event after the bridge-painting incident, students were brought to tears as they shared how the "Build the Wall" message had hurt them.

Both sides feel their own sense of voicelessness, but everyone seems to have one thing in common: The 2016 campaign is exhausting.

"This election," Faupel said, "I'm just really ready for it to be over."