Chalking Incident Touches Off Debate About Free Speech On Coastal Carolina Campus

December 10, 2014

By Charles D Perry at The State

The bright yellow sign bore two messages.

One side declared Ali Cohen’s frustration with Coastal Carolina University for disciplining her over some sidewalk chalk. The other jabbed at the ironic nature of Wednesday’s “Express Your Stress” event to promote free speech.

It was a Coastal sanctioned gathering. And no chalk was allowed.

“Free speech all the time. Not just when admin says when, where, what about,” one side of Cohen’s sign stated. “#BlackLivesMatter. And I should not be facing charges for writing that.”

Cohen, a junior, confirmed that she is among at least four students facing Coastal conduct charges stemming from chalk messages that were written on the sidewalks of Prince Lawn last week. She said a formal hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Two police reports were filed over the chalking, which took place on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. The students’ messages described concerns about a grand jury’s recent decision not to indict a white police officer who shot and killed a black man in Ferguson, Mo.

Three students were briefly handcuffed on the second night, though authorities opted not to pursue criminal prosecution. When a photo of the detained students was posted on social media, the campus became abuzz with the news.

A day after the Dec. 1 incident, Cohen received a letter from the student conduct manager informing her that she was being charged with vandalism and unlawful usage or entry, civil violations of the university’s conduct code. She attended a pre-hearing conference last week and is accused of unauthorized chalking on Nov. 30.

Jillian Ditch, a senior who was detained and faces conduct charges related to the chalking on Dec. 1, said she doesn’t know what punishment she’ll receive, if any.

“We’re just so in the dark,” she said.

Debbie Conner, Coastal’s vice president for student affairs, declined to comment on the civil charges, saying she can’t discuss student disciplinary proceedings.

Coastal policy states that any chalk messages on campus property must be pre-approved by the university. But the students’ detainment has touched off a campus-wide debate about speech and Coastal’s regulation of it.

“A lot of people didn’t realize what constraints there were on free speech,” Cohen said.

Talk but no chalk

The speech discussion led to Wednesday’s event in the courtyard near the Jackson Student Union. A microphone was set up to allow students to share their opinions. Markers and poster board were provided. There were poetry readings and commentary that covered subjects ranging from racism to radicals.

But chalk was forbidden.

Brian Bunton, an associate professor of physics who helped organize the event, said a chalk-themed gathering may be approved for the spring, but he agreed to stick with markers Wednesday.

Bunton kicked off the event by explaining that faculty wanted to have an open discussion about First Amendment rights. He also encouraged students to be thoughtful in their expression.

“Saying stupid things is kind of like farting,” he said. “You can do it in public, but it’s probably not a good idea.”

Bunton said he wanted to stand up for students’ rights because faculty at Clemson University did the same for him when he was a student there in 1997. That year, Bunton created a section on his fraternity’s website called “Rate your professor.” It allowed students to weigh in on the quality of their instructors. The site sparked a backlash from some faculty who found it offensive. But other professors supported Bunton and he was never disciplined.

“We as faculty have the duty to teach students not only in our classrooms, but outside of our classes as well,” he said.

Other faculty members pointed out that students should be allowed to express their views, even if others find them offensive.

“Free speech ain’t pretty,” said Amanda Brian, an assistant professor in the history department. “And it does not have to be polite.”

Brian said any codes that restrict student speech fly in the face of the goals of higher education, which she said should encourage discussion about sensitive and serious topics. She also took exception to concerns she’s recently heard about students using profane words in protests.

“You don’t have to like them,” she said. “You can find them impolite, but you can’t ban them.”

Aneilya Barnes, another assistant professor in the history department, noted that Coastal leaders passed a resolution supporting academic freedom this semester. Coastal also is developing a new curriculum that encourages students to think critically.

“It’s important that our campus policies reflect the mission of the university, the faculty and the students,” she said after speaking to a group of about 30 people. “When there are conflicts, we need to figure out how to reconcile.”

Since last week’s chalking incident, some students have pointed out that other clubs and organizations regularly mark up the sidewalks without any repercussions.

University officials contend those groups either obtained permission to chalk or should have.

Policies must be enforced fairly

Chalking rules are common at universities across the country, said Peter Bonilla, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit.

“When it comes to allowing students and student groups to chalk in the public areas of campus, universities have a decent amount of leeway,” he said. “They have a pretty significant amount of control over whether they want the campus opened up to that type of expression.”

Bonilla did say the application of these policies must be equitable.

“They have to make sure that it applies evenly,” he said, “and that it’s not applied with respect to the content or the viewpoint of the messages that the students are writing.”

When the Sun News asked Coastal how many chalking requests have been submitted and approved this semester, university spokeswoman Martha Hunn said the process is informal and there are no records to show which requests have been honored and which ones have been rejected.

“Those who wish to chalk come into the Office of Student Life and make the request,” Hunn said via email. “They are then provided the guidelines explaining what is allowed and what is not.”

Hunn said she checked with Whitney Comer, the executive director of student life, and Comer was unaware of any chalking request that had been denied in the last five years.

Conner, the vice president for student affairs, said the university is considering some new venues for student expression, but not because of the recent events.

“All of our policies are reviewed on an annual basis,” she said via email. “We will continue to do this moving forward as well. We have been talking about a free speech zone being located at the [new student] Union when it opens, this is not a new idea based on what has come up the past few weeks. This has been an ongoing discussion for about a year.”

Image concerns

Coastal officials have a history of trying to control the university’s public image and protect its brand.

Last year, college officials refused to allow the distribution of The Weekly Surge on the campus, citing their objection to the alternative publication’s alcohol-related advertising and editorial content. The Weekly Surge is published by The Sun News.

In September, the licensing group that represents the university sent a cease and desist letter to the party promotion business I’m Shmacked. The company had posted a YouTube video of a raucous party with Coastal students. I’m Shmacked also sold Coastal-themed merchandise on its website. Among the items offered was a shirt that said, “It’s not college, it’s Coastal.”

“It has come to our attention that I’m Shmacked is currently using the Marks of Coastal Carolina University in connection with events sponsored by your organization and unlicensed merchandise being offered for sale,” the letter from Licensing Resource Group’s lawyer to an I’m Shmacked founder states. “We consider such infringing use to be an intrusion upon the rights of Coastal Carolina University.”

Hunn, the Coastal spokeswoman, said the university’s vice president of communication also contacted YouTube and asked that the video be removed.

The video with the most views was removed and the company is not selling Coastal T-shirts on its website anymore, Hunn said.

“We don’t know if any of the university’s requests influenced the changes that were made,” she said.

Some students and professors insist the university discourages conversations on touchy subjects.

“Coastal normally operates in a way to avoid controversy,” said sophomore Michael Donaldson, who said he suspects the reason for Coastal’s objection to the chalking was because it drew attention to the Ferguson case.

Donaldson said most students aren’t as engaged as they should be. He said some groups are concerned about losing university support if they take stands that are too controversial. Because of that fear, they host tame events and don’t push anyone’s buttons.

But the activism culture, he said, needs to change.

“There’s nothing being challenged,” he said.

Schools: Coastal Carolina University