Conflicts over political speech at University of Minnesota prompt calls for action

The march reaches the end of the Washington Avenue Bridge
The "We Will Not Be Erased" march reaches the end of the Washington Avenue Bridge, the space where College Republicans painted a message about the university's pronoun policy, on Nov. 8, 2018, at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus. The group has formed a petition that calls for the university to take action on transgender and nonbinary rights.
Ellen Schmidt for MPR News

“Paint the Bridge” is an annual event where University of Minnesota students showcase their clubs by painting murals on panels inside the Washington Avenue Bridge.

This year, the College Republicans painting depicted an image of the 9/11 terrorist attack next to a quote from DFL U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar. The painting was vandalized, just as the College Republican painting had been for the previous three years.

Addison Scufsa, a representative for College Republicans at the university, said there needs to be more constructive conversation on campus.

“If you don't agree with the message that Trump has or if you don't agree with what we put on our panel, figure out a way to change people’s minds or have a discussion with us to see why we think that way,” Scufsa said. “But, for me, vandalism doesn’t get you anywhere. Shutting down people’s opinions doesn’t get you to that goal of changing their minds.”

Incidents like that at the university’s Twin Cities campus have forced discussions about freedom of speech and expression among students.

“The current climate is mirroring what’s going on in our country right now. I think there’s a little bit of divisiveness among some of our student groups in particular,” said Maggie Towle, the university’s dean of students.

Scufsa believes that conservative opinions are not welcomed on campus.

A lawsuit filed last July against the university by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro and other conservative groups echo that. Shapiro argued that when the university moved his speech from a larger venue to a smaller one, it violated his First Amendment rights. University officials said they moved the speech over concerns of possible protests.

Scufsa believes the backlash against conservatives happens in university classrooms, too.

“I think the classroom is a great place to kind of hash out those differences, but I’ve noticed just a lot of general hate and dislike for other people without that kind of respect that I feel like needs to be there in order to have conversations and actually flesh out ideas,” Scufsa said.

The president of College Democrats at the university, Faisa Achmed, disagreed and said that students can say whatever they want.

“I believe like right now especially, everyone has the right to speak. They can speak on whatever they believe. I don’t think it’s any different than what it is in the real world,” said Achmed. “Everybody has the ability to say and think the way they want to think.”

What’s happening at the university highlights a broader issue of political discourse and polarization in the country. More than 85 percent of Americans believe that talking politics has become more negative and less respectful in recent years, according to the Pew Research Center.

Towle said one reason for the poor political discourse between students following controversial events is that some students don’t necessarily know how to handle these situations and are confused over what can or cannot be said on campus.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations, too, which has been interesting that a lot of students don’t really understand the difference between the first amendment and hate speech,” Towle said. “And so what students find offensive and is not hate speech, will claim it is hate speech, and the university needs to do something about that.”

The university is responding with educational programs aimed at teaching students exactly what their freedom of expression rights entail. Administrators are also teaming up with the Minnesota Student Association to try to develop ways to be more proactive in their approach on handling issues of freedom of speech and expression.

The student association is pushing the university to adopt the “Chicago Statement,” a policy adopted by the University of Chicago in 2014 which says universities should support free speech even if it's unpopular speech.

“We only see conversations of freedom of expression after an event happens,” said the association’s Campus Life Committee director Levi O’Tool. “When that happens I think it’s inflammatory and hurtful for a lot of groups on campus, and so we’re hoping to have this conversation and roll out some more solid policy guidelines ahead of time so that students know what their rights are, and so that when we have to have a conversation after something happens here on campus it can be more educational and beneficial to students.”

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