Last year, University of Illinois received the nationwide attention through an incident where a Facebook page titled “Illini White Student Union” was created. It is unclear if those who created the page were students at the University. Although the page was shortly taken down, some students viewed it as a threat to the minority students in the campus and a counteroffensive tactic aimed towards the activists of the Black Lives Matter.
During the first week of April, writings in chalk started to appear in the campus areas such as the sidewalks of the main quad and on the front steps of the cultural houses. Statements such as “Build the Wall”, “They have to go back #Trump” were written near the Latina/ Latino Studies building. Also, in front of the Women’s Resource Center, there were two vivid messages inscribed: “Feminism rapes” and “Women for Trump”.
Upon reading the chalk signs, Allison Wheeler, a Freshman in LAS, says “I was really disappointed in the population. The fact that there are people actively trying to hurt people based on their political views and the way they view people in the campus from other parts of the world were all really disappointing.” She added, “freedom of speech is to an extent where you are not hurting people, and you shouldn’t be exercising your freedom of speech to actively offend others.”
The Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson sent out a mass email to the students shortly after the chalk signs surfaced. The letter states, “Last semester, we saw incidents in social media. This week, it was chalking on the Quad. We don’t know what the next issue will be, but we know there will be one.” She also included that every member of the campus community is encouraged to exercise his/her freedom of speech and the best recourse would be to practice speech that clearly articulates a stronger and better argued point of view.
After several rain showers and modifications made by the students, the original chalk signs are no longer visible. The new statements carry words of encouragement for the peers such as “I Believe in You”, “Immigrants are Welcome Here”, and “We Promote Solidarity.” Student organizations have voluntarily participated in the editing process in to protect the quad. Another incident that caused outrage in the campus was when a picture of a party scene became public through social media. Two Greek organizations, Acacia fraternity and Alpha Phi, were accused of cultural misappropriation as they were seen wearing stereotypical cultural apparels including keffiyehs and a sombrero. The members of the organizations who are in the picture apologized through a Facebook page after receiving criticisms from student organizations such as Not Just a Party at UIUC (NJAP). However, the offended members of the community requested for more effort and consequences paid on the part of the Greek organizations than merely written words.
Following the posting of the controversial picture, a Facebook page called “Humans against Homicidal Apes Illinois” was created to show support for the Greek organizations’ action. Since the page contained extreme views and languages, it was to be deleted immediately. Renee Romano, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, released a statement saying “While freedom of speech and expression is a foundational principle of this university, we believe that this post is reprehensible. It most certainly goes beyond speech that we can defend, and we strongly condemn its message and language.” Similar cases where students were offended by the writings and expressions of their community members have occurred on other campuses. In Emory University, students have expressed that they are “in pain” after finding the chalk signs with divisive messages. The tearful students were able to meet with the President James W. Wagner to discuss changes in the policies concerning freedom of speech and need for safe space in a college environment.
The case of Emory University received criticisms concerning whether freedom of speech is being regulated or not. Also, the administration was blamed for“coddling” the students by protecting them from opinions that they don’t necessarily agree. The critics also pointed out that since statements such as “Trump 2016” are not direct threats to the students’ wellbeing, they should acknowledge the difference in opinions instead of resorting to the administration for protection.
In contrast to Emory’s handling of the situation, University of Illinois took a different approach where the administration emphasized on “constructive dialogue that encompasses a wide range of views and voices”. Danah Bakir, a Freshman in LAS, says “I think the administration giving students the power to voice their ideas about change is really important. The students are the body of the University. They go to school here, study here, and they are the ones that these negative comments impact. So I think that the students’ voice matters more.”
While some students feel that the administration has done enough to address the situation, others feel that the school should have chosen to practice a zero tolerance policy. “I don’t know if the administration is trying not to offend anybody. They are trying to avoid a situation like Mizzou. But, the way that they are approaching the situation is going to end up just like Mizzou because they are not actively trying to stop it” says Marisa Smith, a Ph.D. student in Communications.
Smith also says, “People misconstrue ‘free speech.' ‘Free Speech’ is protection from government censorship, not necessarily protection from hate speech. You can’t scream fire in a crowded theater. And that type of speech is going to do nothing but create turmoil on campus and also create negativity that can lead to issues like what happened in Mizzou.”
Both Bakir and Smith have expressed that the campus wouldn’t be a good learning environment if people are to be affected by their peers’ expressions when they are passing by the quad to get to their classes or checking the social media. And, that the concepts such as “safe space” and “freedom of speech” should be used to motivate students in achieving their academic goals rather than aiding to create a stressful atmosphere.
*The views expressed in this report are the authors’ alone and are not necessarily shared by the “Hear My Voice…” organization or publications or the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
By Da Yeon Eom