Sidewalk Politics

Iowa State University policy restricting political messages written in chalk on campus sidewalks is being challenged in court as violating students' free speech rights. Supporters of the policy believe it will protect underrepresented groups from hateful language.

January 9, 2020
 
Mason Zastrow
A chalk message on an Iowa State campus sidewalk in Ames, Iowa.

Students and free speech advocates are accusing Iowa State University of stifling speech by banning political messaging on campus less than one month away from the state Democratic caucuses. ​

The university implemented an interim policy on Nov. 11 to limit chalking, a popular practice in which students write political commentary and slogans in chalk on the sidewalks of the campus in Ames, Iowa. Only registered student organizations will be permitted to chalk under the policy, and messages can only advertise upcoming events and consist of the organization’s name and the location, time and title of the event -- in no more than seven words.

The university said that chalking that does not meet the guidelines would be erased and the students or groups who violate the policy punished. The policy allows for sanctions such as fines and loss of status as an officially registered and recognized organization.

The Democratic caucus is scheduled for Feb. 3.​

President Wendy Wintersteen said in a written statement that Iowa State “does not punish individuals for their constitutionally protected rights to expression, nor do we have policies or practices that prohibit expression based on the content of the expression or the viewpoint of the speaker.”

She said that as a public institution, “Iowa State University fully embraces its role as a First Amendment campus and is deeply committed to constitutional protections of free expression” and “the ‘free marketplace of ideas’ that is a fundamental characteristic of university life … Unfortunately, our campus has also experienced bigoted, hateful, racist and anti-Semitic messaging that, while protected by the First Amendment, is also hurtful and harmful to many students.”

Ryan Hurley, president of the College Republicans chapter on campus, said the organization opposes the restrictions. He described chalking as a significant part of students' political activism.

"I don’t mind when I walk to campus and I see Bernie [Sanders] things or Elizabeth Warren things, because that’s how I know that my fellow students are engaging in politics," Hurley said. "At this point in time, everyone needs to be, and this is an amazing way to show off and help others be aware."

The College Democrats chapter uses chalking as a strategy to encourage students to vote during election season, said Taylor Blair, former president of the chapter. But chalking is only one strategy, he said, and if restricting it can reduce incidents of hate-filled messages on campus, the organization would prefer students feel safe, Blair said.

"People did chalk, 'Steve King 2020' and 'Trump 2020,' and those messages were right alongside 'It’s OK to be white,'" Blair said. "They would say 'Trump 2020,' then right next to it there would be, 'HH' for 'Heil Hitler.' To say that it’s all about writing 'Trump 2020' ignores the fact that it was always paired with hateful and demeaning things."

The chalking policy was put in place by the university after neo-Nazi and transphobic messages were found written in chalk on campus sidewalks in October 2019, said Mason Zastrow, a sophomore and representative in the Student Government Senate. The incidents were followed by days of student protests. ISU Students Against Racism, which was formed in response to the hate messages, delivered a list of demands to Wintersteen, calling on administrators to implement a “zero tolerance policy to hate speech” that included chalking, according to the demands published on Iowa State’s Campus Climate website.

The chalking policy was unanimously approved by the 33-member student senate after it heard from ISU Students Against Racism about how the hateful messages affected students at whom the messages were directed, Zastrow said. The student representatives were willing to sacrifice one aspect of political activism to prevent future slurs and conflict, he said noting that a student senate committee is drafting a permanent chalking policy that it will suggest university administrators adopt.

“If you’re trying to say that this policy makes it more difficult for students to express their ideas, that’s in part true, because it’s a medium that they can no longer use,” said Zastrow, who was speaking for himself and not the Student Government Senate. “But if you’re trying to change minds, [chalking] is not going to be as effective as in-person anyways, and we’re not discouraging that. We’re discouraging the medium itself, which we think is more distracting than it’s worth … If there’s a slur that targets someone’s identity, they now have the choice not to see it.”

The policy is only the first step to remedying the struggles of underrepresented students on campus, ISU Students Against Racism said in a statement.

"Under various administrations the university has repeatedly failed to take leadership on the issue of white supremacy on campus … The priority has always been to deny and suppress the underlying issue of white supremacy," the statement said. "Therefore, Students Against Racism stands on its position that the chalking policy is a response -- but not a solution to the continuous activity of white supremacists at Iowa State."

Speech First, a national advocacy association for student, parent, faculty and alumni members concerned about free speech on college campuses, started getting complaints about the chalking ban soon after the policy was announced, said Nicole Neily, president of the organization. Most of the students who complained have been “right of center” politically, which Neily found disappointing because of the impact the policy has on all campus speech, she said.

The proper response from Iowa State to counter the hateful messages would be to allow for more speech, Neily said.

“There is going to be unpleasant language on college campuses,” she said. “This is not language I support, but the right solution to dealing with this is not to ban it. It’s an opportunity for dialogue, education, programming … The point of college is to have those arguments.”

Neily said the ban would not change the minds of students who believe the racist, transphobic and anti-Semitic sentiments that led to the policy.

“I understand the impetus behind it, but I don’t think it’s a good method, and unfortunately, it’s an unconstitutional method,” she said.

Chalking has been a common way for students to get involved in local politics, Hurley said. The policy “can be used to stymie free speech on both sides,” he said.

“From what I’ve seen, essentially every political activist is upset with it,” Hurley said. “They’ve had their freedoms stripped, and I think that’s been done very maliciously because it’s such a vague policy.”

Chalking was one of the major ways Rachel Junck, a 20-year-old senior at Iowa State, garnered support for her 2019 election to the Ames City Council, Hurley said. Junck became the youngest woman ever to be elected to public office in the state, according to the Des Moines Register.

Chalking is also often used to advertise opportunities for students to meet U.S. presidential candidates visiting Ames ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Neily said. The chalking restrictions could limit students’ knowledge about political campaign events and their ability to plan protests, Neily said.

The College Democrats said in a written statement that it would like to work with administrators to form a permanent policy that offers an exception for political speech and focuses more directly on hate speech.

"Making sure our campus is a safe and welcoming place for all, but particularly for people of marginalized identities, is extremely important to the ISU College Democrats," the statement said. "We welcomed the temporary chalking policy as an immediate solution to stop the hateful, racist, neo-Nazi, transphobic, homophobic and anti-Semitic messages that were overwhelming our campus this past fall … Iowa State does not have a free speech problem -- we have a white supremacist problem."

Speech First filed a lawsuit against the university on Jan. 2 and requested a preliminary injunction on Jan. 6 to challenge three of Iowa State’s policies and practices: the chalking restrictions, a 2012 policy that prohibits using university email addresses to “solicit support for a candidate or ballot measure” and the university’s Campus Climate Reporting System, which is used to respond to incidents of bias. In the lawsuit, the Washington, D.C.-based organization argues the university's definition of a bias incident -- speech seen as “demeaning,” “taunting,” “bullying,” “verbal harassment or “intimidation” -- is a "content-based and viewpoint-based restriction."

“Iowa State and its officials have created a series of rules and regulations designed to restrain, deter, suppress, and punish speech concerning political and social issues of public concern,” the lawsuit states. “And they do so despite Iowa’s central role as the ‘first in the nation’ to weigh in on presidential primary elections. The university’s policies plainly violate the First Amendment.”

Both Hurley and Zastrow said they were unaware of the university email policy until it was publicized in the lawsuit, and they have doubts it is enforced.

Students Against Racism said Speech First does not represent the interests of Iowa State students and "wants to have a role in shaping policies that disproportionately affect students from minority communities."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, supports Speech First's lawsuit and hopes it "results in policies at ISU allowing broad space for student discourse and debate, as the Constitution requires," said director of litigation Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon in a statement.

"This is particularly crucial in a presidential election year when robust political discussion among college students will play an important role in shaping our democratic future," Beck-Coon said.

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