In an April 2 statement issued to the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), President Douglas Bennet upheld the campus chalking ban.
The statement was made in response to the resubmission of last year’s chalking policy by a group of students during his office hours last Tuesday. An uncontested Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) resolution officially supported the student action.
“I am convinced that freedom of dialogue is well covered by other means of expression,” Bennet said during the Tuesday meeting.
Last year’s policy recommends that chalking be allowed on campus sidewalks due to its value as an avenue of communication. Specifically, the proposal cites the dialogue often spurred by chalking, and the ability of students to bring controversial issues to the fore of campus debate with their messages.
After acknowledging that chalked messages could sometimes offend, the proposal suggests that individuals mentioned by name could contact the Office of Affirmative Action to have their names erased.
Controversial chalkings could also be reviewed and, if necessary, erased. In closing, the authors of the proposal encouraged students to utilize other forms of mass communication to supplement their chalkings in order to facilitate more in-depth discussion.
“Chalking often serves as an impetus for members of the community to begin discussion,” the proposal stated. “It is a forum through which silenced members of the community have found a strong, and importantly anonymous, form of communication that allows them to reach a broad audience.”
During his office hours, students requested that Bennet send out a formal, campus-wide e-mail stating his position on the chalking ban, though according to WSA member Emily Polak ’05, he refused to before reading the WSA resolution.
After summarizing the recommendations made by the chalking policy, Bennet reiterated the position he took in declaring the ban last May.
“My belief was that the chalking ban could help channel debate and expression in directions more consonant with Wesleyan’s fundamental academic mission,” he wrote. “I believe that, if we look back over the year since the ban became effective, we have seen open, energetic debate about all the topics […] with which a university community would expect to concern itself.”
Bennet described chalking as “one-sided” and stated that due to its anonymous nature, chalking “skirted accountability to its audience.”
According to Director of University Communications Justin Harmon, Bennet considered no new information in his recent decision. The only new contribution was a year’s experience with the chalking ban in effect.
“Doug’s sense is that the atmosphere on campus for debate on all issues is quite vibrant,” Harmon said.
Harmon explained that, according to Bennet, the chalking proposal presented to him does not address the workers who felt that the chalkings constituted a kind of workplace harassment.
Harmon elaborated that in Bennet’s eyes, a system in which certain chalkings were restricted while others were not created a problematic situation, particularly in light of the First Amendment right of free speech. Harmon cited precedents in court decisions that consider constraints upon the manner and location of expression as preferable to constraints on content. Specifically, he referred to a recent decision made by the Maryland attorney general that stated that students at the University of Maryland could be restricted from making obscene comments and bearing offensive signs at televised sporting events.
“It actually does create a situation in which administrators are having to choose between messages … based upon their content,” Harmon said.
According to Polak, Interim Dean of the College Peter Patton attended Sunday’s WSA meeting and listened to student concerns about chalking. While Polak said Patton offered no new information, his presence suggested an attempt to reach out to students.
Though the Administration does not expect to consider any new arguments, Harmon said, they do plan upon augmenting the number of places where students can post their thoughts. Harmon also explained that the distinction between chalkings and other forms of written communication is that chalking leaves viewers with little choice of whether or not to pay attention to the messages.
In spite of the decision, students and others have continued to voice their opposition and disappointment. An editorial written in the Hartford Courant on April 5 urged Bennet to repeal the chalking ban.
“Free expression informs and illuminates,” the editorial read. “It also indulges in excess, provoking, offending and embarrassing. At times, like the chalk rendering a penis on a campus sidewalk during parents’ weekend, it can be downright inconvenient. But in a free society, such ideas succeed or fail based on their own merits.”
Polak disagreed with Bennet’s assertion that even without chalking students have freely been able to voice their concerns.
“While I’m not surprised at [Bennet’s] response [to the proposal] I’m extremely disappointed,” she said. “I think the Administration has not done an adequate job at finding alternative means of communication on campus and there’s a serious lack of dialogue because of it.”
Despite Bennet’s most recent response, Lisa Eisenberg ’06, a member of the student group that presented Bennet with the proposal, maintained that student needs were not addressed.
“I feel frustrated because as much as [Bennet] insists he read the proposal the first time and reconsidered it the second time, he’s showing us no evidence that he’s taken in consideration specific parts of the proposal,” she said.
Eisenberg cited the lack of allusions to specific aspects of the proposal, such as the recourse given to those who are named specifically in chalkings, as evidence.
“To get rid of chalking is really doing a disservice to Wesleyan and it’s frustrating that President Bennet can’t see that,” she said.
According to Polak, the student group responsible for the current chalking proposal does not currently intend to amend the proposal in any way due to their belief in its viability. They as of yet do not plan upon presenting it to Bennet again any time in the near future.
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