Human Rights

Campus Conversation attendees debate free speech and hate speech on graffiti wall

Photo by Heather Willard.
Written by Heather Willard

Student and faculty panels debated whether controversial graffiti wall comments protected free speech or prohibited hate speech on OU’s campus at Wednesday’s Campus Conversation.

The graffiti in question was discovered two weeks ago and depicted racial epithets and offensive symbolism.

Sara Trower, the executive director of the OU Office for Equity, Civil Rights Compliance and Accessibility, opened the discussion by examining the legal limits of free speech and whether the speech from the graffiti wall could be illegal, which she concluded was unlikely.

“What we see is the exchange of ideas, which is what the freedom is intended to further, and with respect to that, I think the response is to act respectfully in our discourse, and hopefully minds will be changed,” Trower said.

Marcus Cole, a senior majoring in psychology, approached the topic through his educational background.

“A lot of times when we talk about hate speech, we ask, ‘Does it inflict violence? What are the violent acts that come out of it?’ A lot of the negativity in the world is not violent acts,” Cole said. “So with hate speech, we have to look at how it affects individuals on very personal levels.”

He then elaborated on how offensive statements and images will create long-lasting effects on the psyche of minorities.

Communications professor Tom Costello encouraged more inclusive speech and viewed the issue as a moral and spiritual one, but not political. He asked those who attended to think about two things: how to obliterate what separates people and how to stop forgetting that people all belong to each other.

“Go outside the classroom,” Costello said. “The other thing is, if you’re in the dominant group, be an ally and advocate. Be aware of your privilege, acknowledge it and take some action.”

OU College Republicans President David Parkhill started his statement with a disclaimer, saying the racist remarks were in no way associated with OUCR, and he would do his best to be unbiased.

“Ninety-nine percent of people would say that hateful rhetoric has no place on a college campus,” Parkhill said. “But who is to say what is hateful rhetoric and what isn’t? We cannot allow our institutions to dictate our free speech. Today a statement might be controversial, but tomorrow the color blue could be.”

To wrap up the panel, associate professor Robert Ingram introduced the concept that being unsettled by ideas is part of a proper university experience and would help individuals create the greatest good for themselves.

“Universities are neutral sites where students and faculty sit together and figure out for themselves how to live a good life,” Ingram said. “I can’t argue with your feelings. I can debate your principles, but feelings are in the analysis of the graffiti wall.”

He went on to say the intolerance of dissent is part of OU culture and is destroying the communication around the graffiti wall.

Many impassioned questions followed the board’s opinions, especially as the conversation turned to the topic of Donald Trump’s wall. After one student said they did not believe there are safe spaces for minority students to have conversations with allies, Parkhill asked how a wall could make someone feel unsafe.

Alicia Chavira-Prado, special assistant to the vice provost for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, responded.

“As a Latino, I can tell you,” Chavira-Prado said. “You can hide a message behind national security, but the implications and the political message is that we don’t want anyone here who’s origins are from south of that wall.”

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Heather Willard

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