Chalking Back

24 Sep 2016

When I arrived Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois, on Tuesday to speak on academic freedom, the campus was a bit abuzz because of some controversial “chalking.” Overnight, someone had written pro-Trump slogans on many of the campus sidewalks. Turns out it was members of the College Republicans, although that wasn’t clear at the time. Various folks had chalked-back.

My favorite chalking-back responded to the anti-feminist slogan “feminism is cancer.” Someone had added to the slogan “Leo, Pisces, Aquarius,” etc. (See the photo I took.)

At Augustana, a student asked me one-on-one after my talk what I think the right reaction to “offensive” chalking is. Is it “free-speech zones”?

I probably visibly rolled my eyes, and said I thought the right response to “offensive” speech was engagement and occasionally ignoring. “Free-speech zones,” I told him, are an oxymoron.

I’m guessing now I was speaking to a member of College Republicans, because the young man agreed with me and, not long after, Joe Carroll, President of the group, was quoted in Campus Reform saying free-speech zones are oxymoronic. Campus Reform was now covering the story because—sigh—the Augustana College administration had decided to declare a “free-speech zone,” limiting chalking to one area of campus.

I had to fly straight on to Florida from Illinois on Wednesday, to give a series of talks (including on academic freedom) at the University of Miami, so it took me longer than I’d wished to write to the administration to ask them to reconsider their decision. I attach my letter below.

Why did I bother to write to them? I sincerely wish academic administrators would stop treating students like preschoolers who need us to hold their hands lest they run across the street in front of a car. As I say below, a much better response to pro-Trump or pro-feminist or pro-or-anti-anything chalking is to engage, engage, engage, and occasionally ignore.

Colleges that are not teaching students how to do that—and more importantly, why to do that—are not doing their pedagogical jobs. Colleges that open free-speech zones are colleges erecting playpens for people who should be treated as adults.

I have had no response to my letter from the President and Provost of Augustana College. It was sent yesterday at about 3 p.m. eastern time. I suspect they’re pretty busy just now.


Dear President Bahls and Provost Lawrence,

I was honored to be a speaker for Symposium Day this week at Augustana College. The conversations with the students, faculty, and administrators on academic freedom, trigger warnings, and safe spaces was very encouraging. As a feminist, LGBT and intersex patient rights advocate, and an advocate for academic freedom, I felt in very smart and caring company.

I am consequently deeply disappointed to hear that you’ve instituted a “free speech zone” on campus in response to chalking. This kind of move sends a clear signal that certain types of speech will not be tolerated, which in turn sends a message that we are only allowed to let our minds and our mouths go a limited number of places at universities as we research and learn. While that may be in the best interest of the administration, it is not in the best interest of students, faculty, and our country.

Additionally, your approach suggests students have no ability to appropriately respond on their own to speech or ideas that they perceive as hostile. We need to help students learn how to respond, not protect them from the reality of the world. The right way to do this is to engage, engage, engage. And occasionally ignore. But not to paternalistically protect and restrict.

As I argued in my talk on Tuesday, universities must absolutely be places where we allow “dangerous” ideas and difficult conversations. On Tuesday, I specifically noted that we need to do this not only for our own sakes, but because academia has to keep functioning as an incubator for democracy itself. It is particularly ironic that “free speech zones” are instituted in response to political discourse, because a healthy and maturing political democracy is the the most important result of allowing free speech on campuses.

Please reconsider your decision and consider adopting the Chicago principles as other universities have been doing:

Best wishes,

Alice Dreger, PhD