Free Speech Prevails at the University of Minnesota

Each year, dozens of student groups at the University of Minnesota are invited to paint small murals in designated spaces on the Washington Avenue Bridge, which unites the northern and southern parts of the campus. The college Republicans painted three small sections that included “Trump/Pence 2016” and “Build the Wall.”


The horror! Left-wing students couldn’t bear the sight of Donald Trump and the wall, so they painted the words “Stop white supremacy” across two of the college Republicans’ panels:


University President Eric Kaler released a statement that appropriately defended free speech:

The panel includes the phrase from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, “Build the wall.” While this is protected as free, political speech, we have heard from members of our community who find the phrase hurtful, offensive, anti-immigrant, and anti-Latinx.

People in our community may disagree with the sentiment expressed. However, while the University values free speech, the subsequent vandalism of the panel is not the way to advance a conversation.
We encourage all who find some protected speech distasteful or offensive to engage in more protected speech.

A member of a “a Latino-based multicultural fraternity” expressed the usual confusions:

There’s freedom of speech but then there’s hate speech.

Sorry, no. That isn’t how it works.

I was really angry, angry because it’s an attack to my people because I am Mexican.

Why is it an attack on Mexicans to say that if they want to enter the United States, they should do so legally? Does this student think that Mexicans have the right to wander wherever they want, regardless of other countries’ laws? If so, is that a right that is shared by others, or is it unique to Mexicans? If the former, why does Mexico have immigration laws?

Happily, the college Republicans had a more intelligent response to the episode:

We find it highly disturbing that someone would vandalize a simple statement such as “build the wall.”

We have received comments on the painting, falsely accusing us of being racist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant. Our party’s nominee supports building a wall on the Mexican border to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into this country. We understand that some students may disagree with this policy position. However, free speech is at the center of a functioning democracy, and the actions taken against our panels run contrary to free speech. It’s worth noting that numerous politicians from both parties support building a wall on the Mexican border.

President Obama, Vice-President Biden, Secretary Clinton, and Minnesota Governor Dayton have all supported building a wall on the Mexican border while they were U.S. Senators (Secure Fence Act of 2006). We look forward to students writing angry letters and reporting these Democrat politicians to the Bias Incident System for hurting their feelings as well.

Regardless of how one feels about border security or Mr. Donald J. Trump, it is never acceptable to infringe on other people’s freedom of speech. University policy clearly states, “Any alteration(s) to any panel by any person(s) outside of these designated time(s) is considered vandalism and subject to University Policy and/or local, state and federal laws.”

We appreciate President Kaler’s statement of support for our freedom of speech and we expect the university to continue to uphold their commitment to freedom of speech and diversity of thought.

When it comes to free speech, the University of Minnesota has gotten better over the years. One of the early forays into activism by Scott Johnson and me, quite a few years ago, involved the University of Minnesota. It arose out of the annual activities fair, where student groups have booths and hand out literature. Left-wing student monitors confiscated literature that was being handed out by the college Republicans, who then wrote a letter of complaint to the dean of students.

Peter Swanson, who led the college Republicans and wrote the letter, naturally assumed that the left-wingers had acted in violation of university policies, and wanted to ensure that such infringement didn’t occur in the future. He was surprised to receive, in response, a letter from the dean agreeing with the left-wing students’ actions. She said, in essence, that the University of Minnesota is committed to diversity, and as a result there is no room there for Republicans.

Scott and I represented Peter and the college Republicans. In response to our threat of a lawsuit, the university made significant concessions, including an agreement to subject the president of the university and his cabinet to First Amendment sensitivity training.

Happily, the University’s current president seems already to be sensitive to the right of free speech.