Iowa State University’s Chalking Ban Threatens Freedom of Speech


Before the Iowa caucus, Iowa State University banned chalking on campus. (Courtesty of Flickr)

Iowa State University has recently been thrust into a controversy over rights to free speech after temporarily banning a tradition of political chalking from non-registered student groups. During the presidential election season, Iowa State can usually be seen with sidewalks sporting political messages in chalk, an ironic pastime that spreads political awareness through a common childhood practice. Many of these chalk drawings alert fellow students to different events supporting certain candidates or will simply share support with various slogans from campaigns for President Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and so on.

However, numerous chalk drawings have also crossed a not-so childlike line, filling sidewalks with hateful comments in pastel blues and pinks. These negative messages have included anti-Semitic and racist comments, amongst others.

The University administration banned chalking in an attempt to mellow the division evident amongst the student body. Although the university’s bans against individual chalking were an attempt to unite the student body, the only way that would work is if the student body united in frustration over these limiting bans.

However, even this faux unity is not substantial. Iowa State is known for having prevalent student groups that are outspoken in their political views, with both College Democrat and College Republican congregations on-campus. Student responses are mixed, with the New York Times stating that, “Many … College Democrats have lined up in support of the restrictions, while the College Republicans are largely against them.” The bans have only increased partisan divisions amongst students, and they have morphed into an issue of free speech rights.

In fact, the university was even sued for limiting students’ rights to free speech by Speech First, a group dedicated to protecting this constitutional right. This is not the first issue Iowa State University has encountered over limits to students’ rights. Their interaction with Speech First has also included battles over the university’s attempt to prevent students from sending out political emails using their university-issued email accounts.

At first glance, these bans may seem reasonable. There were a multitude of chalkings that were clearly out of hand, such as multiple comments that referenced Hitler. Substantial amounts of these hateful chalkings were used to deface previously existing messages in a further attempt to spread further animosity. While political awareness among college students is a necessity considering colleges are ripe with fresh voters, there are some messages that simply cross a line, and we should never accept offensive comments from hate groups.

Nonetheless, banning political chalking altogether is not the best option. It is certainly the easiest, and that is why it makes sense that Iowa State’s first instinct when presented with a barrage of hateful comments was to ban the comments altogether. This, unfortunately, does not solve the much bigger problem. Hate must be stopped from its source, not from its platform. By banning political chalking, the university prevents other rule-abiding students from expressing their own political opinions in a healthy manner and keeping the conversation about politics alive. If there is no platform for students to proudly display their political opinions, there will only be an increase in partisan division because students will not be prompted to think about the other side on their daily walk to class.

Hate is derived from ignorance. It is a nature of disrespect that comes from pure, unchallenged obliviousness. The only way to truly stop this practice is to educate these students on people different from themselves. Hate groups will not die down if individuals are not challenged to actually learn about those that are different from them, and to suppress their instinct to fear anyone different from themselves. While it is obviously easier for hate groups to sneak out in the middle of the night and write their offensive comments, that does not mean that it is the only way in which these hurtful messages are spread. There is probably still an abundance of slurs and ignorant comments made every day by these same people, and while they may not be as plentiful as the faceless messages sprawled across the sidewalk, they are just as powerful.

It is definitely harder to stop hate through education, but it is also the most effective solution. Rather than limiting free speech for all students, why not teach students why their specific speech is ignorant? Teach students to be open-minded. In classrooms, professors should never force their own opinions on students, but rather, teach them to be open to hearing any and all opinions before making judgements. After all, isn’t that why students are there in the first place: to learn? Iowa State agreed to teach these students, so they should do what they promised to do. Don’t punish all students for the hateful actions of others, but start to prevent this hate. Ignorance stems from a lack of education. The answer is simple: do your job and challenge these students’ obliviousness.

Taylor Herzlich, GSB ’23, is a business administration major from Mount Sinai, N.Y.