Chalk Talk: UCSB Discusses Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

Frances Castellon/Staff Photographer

Chelsea Viola

The University of California, Santa Barbara Division of Student Affairs hosted a community forum last week to discuss freedom of expression, hate speech and campus inclusivity in light of some controversial chalk statements written throughout the university.

On the evening of Thursday, April 7, approximately 100 students, faculty and other members of the community filtered into Corwin Pavilion to deliberate on the impact of the chalk messages and whether they fall under “hate speech” or “free speech.”

“This is a perfect example of the type of civil discourse we want to encourage on our campus — a forum of civil discussion and the free and open exchange of ideas and viewpoints,” said UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang.

Most of the objectionable messages were written around the Student Resource Building, including such racially-charged statements as “Black Lies Matter,” “Sodomy = AIDS, Repent,” and “Deport them all, Build a wall, But save the tacos.” Another asserted, “The Hunting Ground is full of lies; 1 in 4 women are not raped,” disputing a statistic given in the 2015 CNN documentary on campus sexual assault.

Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Margaret Klawunn commenced the discussion with an opening quote from a memo she had issued on April 1.

“The sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and intolerance contained in these messages are inconsistent with [the university’s] core values and commitment to maintain an inclusive and safe learning environment,” she said.

Common themes seemed to resurface in the dialogue amongst smaller discussion groups, including the ambiguity of free speech.

“When tackling the question of, ‘What is free speech?’ responses were all across the board,” said Sociology Professor Beth Schneider once the forum reconvened. “Some said we could say anything. Others said we could say what you want, but to be considerate.”

Some students felt that the chalk statements should fall under the scope of free speech. “As a queer person, those statements in chalk really offend me,” said one student, who wished to remain unnamed. “But it is not my right to say you can’t say that. I came to college to be surrounded by people with different opinions than mine. If that were not the case, I would want a refund.”

A great deal of time was spent discussing the fine line separating free speech and hate speech.

“Freedom of speech is the promotion of ideas unlike your own,” said UCSB alumnus Andrew Pragin. “It is the change we all want to experience when we come to college. It is learning. But sadly, it can take a wrong turn and become hateful. There is that strange line that we cannot legally draw between hate and love.”

All conversation ultimately circled back to UCSB. Posted along the walls were discussion questions such as, “How would you describe sense of your belonging on this campus?” and “How can free speech on this campus create/disrupt our sense of community?”

The university has taken a strong stance on the issue and reacted swiftly to erase the chalkings and prevent additional incidents. Message content notwithstanding, university policy explicitly prohibits writing in chalk or any other media on university property.

As stated in Klawuun’s memo, however, UCSB Student Affairs has recognized the recent chalk writings not just as vandalism, but also forms of hate speech. Likewise, a petition was signed by 157 faculty members  “ask[ing] Chancellor Yang to publicly condemn the defacing of our campus in the strongest terms possible,” as read by Professor Claudio Fogu of the Italian and French Department. Yang stated at the conclusion of the event that he would see the petition’s terms through to fulfillment.

“It all comes back to education,” said Ricardo A. Alcaino, director of UCSB’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Sexual Harassment. “Hateful speech can be from ignorance, lack of understanding or the intention to hurt. It is vital, as a campus, to support, advocate and expand education — to discuss more, rather than less.”