Pro-Trump political messages — and the campus’ official response to them — have upset a number of students at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
The UW-L Hate and Bias Response Team received eight complaints Monday about political chalkings on sidewalks on the UW-L campus that seemed to support Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. The messages included, “Build the Wall,” “All Lives Matter” and “Stop Illegal Immigration.”
At 7:45 a.m. Monday morning, the Research & Resource Center for Campus Climate posted a response to the incident, saying on its official Facebook page that the response team was aware of the chalkings. It also provided a link to the hate and bias reporting system, and said manifestations of prejudice and intolerance are contradictory to the university’s mission.
“While we respect peoples’ right to express opinions, we also recognize that some communities on campus experience these messages as discriminatory or hostile,” read the message, which was still on the Facebook page at 1:30 p.m. Thursday but was soon taken down.
The tone has upset a number of students on campus, including those who support Trump or feel like the university has taken a stance against free speech. Ben Stelter, a UW-L student and chairman of the College Republicans, said students have a right to be concerned.
“It is not right the university should say that,” Stelter said. “They should promote all free speech regardless of the viewpoint.”
Similar chalking incidents have occurred on other campuses across the United States in recent weeks, resulting in student protests. At private Emory University in Atlanta, messages supporting Trump chalked on the sidewalk resulted in students protesting outside administrative offices with chants including “You are not listening! Come speak to us, we are in pain!” Students interviewed by the Emory student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, said they felt afraid and unsafe on campus as a result of the chalkings and demanded a response from university administration.
UW-L’s policy on publicity permits chalking on campus sidewalks, but not on sides of buildings or in front of entrances. Abbi Claus, the program coordinator for the Campus Climate Office and a member of the response team said students countered the chalkings with messages of their own, including “Diversity makes America Great,” erasing some of the pro-Trump messages from the sidewalks, or writing counter messages next to them.
“They let people know that not everybody has the same viewpoint,” she said. “They let people know that these messages impact them.”
Stelter said he believes personnel in the Campus Climate office are not friendly to free speech on campus. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has a red, yellow and green light rating system for colleges policies affecting free speech, has given UW-L a red light rating, its worst, for policies including the office’s bias and hate reporting system.
Stelter said the university should take a firmer stand promoting and protecting students Constitutional right to free expression.
UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow said that the statement by Campus Climate was not the official position of the university, which does not take any stance on the presidential candidates or political speech. He said he has received a number of emails from students concerned the university was taking a stance against their political views and has responded to each one.
“My feeling is we should be having more debate on on candidates’ positions on things like immigration,” Gow said. “And the university is here to facilitate that dialogue, but not to take a side.”