Why This Iowa Campus Is Erasing Political Chalk Talk

AMES, Iowa — The well-trodden pathways at Iowa State University are usually caked with chalk during an election year. Students streaming past the domed administration building, hunched against the biting cold, could look down at their phones and expect to see “Trump 2020” or “Pete!” in dusty block letters.

Instead, the sidewalks are bare.

With the Iowa caucuses just days away, the university has effectively banned the tradition of political chalking in the name of civility, provoking a standoff over free speech that some students say has only deepened divisions on campus.

“It is strange for the sidewalk to be naked now,” said Daniel Hayes, 20, a junior majoring in political science who is backing Senator Elizabeth Warren for president. “I personally miss it a lot.”

On college campuses, chalking — for all its impermanence and association with childhood games like hopscotch and skully — has become a potent weapon in the arsenal of rival political groups and ideologies. Provocative chalking that spread across campuses during the 2016 presidential race, often in support of Donald J. Trump, became known on social media as #TheChalkening.

ImageDaniel Hayes, a political science major, urging students at Iowa State University to support his preferred candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Credit…KC McGinnis for The New York Times

Some schools have banned or limited the practice. Wesleyan University issued a chalking moratorium in 2003, and the University of Iowa imposed restrictions about a decade ago.

This year, the frenzy of the presidential election has only added to the dispute. Iowa State instituted its anti-chalking rule in November, under pressure from student groups who complained that bigoted and hateful messages were appearing in chalk on campus, sometimes alongside political slogans.

A fledgling civil liberties group, Speech First, sued the university this month, arguing that the new policy violated the First Amendment. The federal lawsuit also challenges a policy barring students from using university email accounts for mass political mailings.

From a distance, clashes over the chalking issue appear to fall along partisan lines. Many members of the university’s College Democrats have lined up in support of the restrictions, while the College Republicans are largely against them.

The law firm representing Speech First, Consovoy McCarthy, is known for supporting conservative causes. It is one of the firms that brought a suit against Harvard over its race-conscious admissions policies, and one of its partners, William S. Consovoy, is representing President Trump in his fight to keep his financial records private.

But in this potential battleground state, on a campus where staunch Trump supporters mix with die-hard liberals, the chalking debate has been anything but clear-cut. Many left-leaning students support the chalking restrictions with a strong dose of ambivalence, and some are against them, arguing that the best antidote to hate speech is not censorship but persuasion.

“Countering bad ideas is the best way to promote good ideas,” said Ben Whittington, 22, a political science major from Chicago who was lining up recruits for Senator Bernie Sanders one afternoon this month. “I don’t think a few bad apples can remove a tool students use to promote themselves politically.”

In a statement, Iowa State’s president, Wendy Wintersteen, said that the university had to balance its commitment to free speech with its obligation to protect students from “illegal discrimination and harassment.” University officials declined to comment further.

Iowa State’s policy, which is similar to the University of Iowa’s, says that only recognized student groups can chalk, and only to advertise events in a strict format: the group’s name, a title for the event (up to seven words), a place and a time. Messages that violate the rule are power-washed away.

Sitting in a Starbucks near campus recently, Taylor Blair, 26, a senior and a former president of the College Democrats, said that chalking had its upsides. He did it himself as the campaign manager for a fellow student who won a seat on the Ames City Council last year.

But he thought some limits were needed. “There was horrendous chalking this past semester,” said Mr. Blair, who is studying industrial design. “White supremacist, anti-Semitic, transphobic.”

“BUILD THE WALL” and “It’s ok to be white” appeared on sidewalks, students said. Then came what some students called the chalking wars, in which messages were defaced and turned into hate speech. “Smash the Patriarchy” was crossed out and rewritten as “Smash the Hooknose,” students said. “Eat the Rich” became “Eat the (((Rich))),” with the triple parentheses as a code for Jews. And “HH” — for “Heil Hitler” — appeared next to “MAGA.”

Mr. Blair said that, as a gay man who had experienced discrimination, he believed that speech and symbols could be inherently violent. “Maybe we should ban the Confederate flag,” he said.

A group called Students Against Racism formed last October to combat the chalking and other incidents they perceived as racist. Alexa Rodriguez, a sophomore who helped found the group, cited “the mental exhaustion that comes from seeing these types of messages.”

Nobody seems to know the identities of the perpetrators, who apparently acted at night, sometimes wearing masks, Ms. Rodriguez said. Left-wing students suspect the mischief was wrought by Trump supporters, and conservatives say it may have been sabotage, to make them look bad.

Ryan Hurley, president of the College Republicans, said his group was not to blame. Mr. Hurley, a sophomore majoring in business, waited outside the campus bookstore on a recent morning wearing a T-shirt that condemned sex trafficking. He showed off a photo of 800 sticks of chalk, ordered on Amazon, as if it were a cache of ballistic missiles.

He would never have written something like “HH,” he said, adding that he did not even know what it stood for until the chalking appeared. “I thought it was Hulk Hogan, honestly,” he said.

To defend themselves, Trump supporters started videotaping all of their chalking as they did it, Mr. Hurley said. They blanketed the campus with chalked American flags and wrote “Keep America American,” a message they considered patriotic.

Sehba Faheem, the president of the College Democrats, said students were so upset by some of the chalk messages last semester that they would try to wash them away using water bottles. She recalled recoiling at a message that said, “Send them home.”

Ms. Faheem, 21, a junior studying biological systems engineering, said that stealth chalking made it easier to be hurtful. “Chalking you can do in the middle of the night,” she said. “When you’re handing out fliers, you have to do it face to face. You’re standing behind what you say.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, a Republican, signed a law last March that forbids public universities to create free speech zones that are set aside for protests and demonstrations. But the university encourages students to advertise their political views in an area called the Agora, a stretch of high-traffic sidewalk near the library. A sign marking the spot reads: “In ancient Greek society, the ‘agora’ was the place citizens would gather to discuss matters of their shared civic life.”

On a recent weekday, volunteers for Mr. Trump, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders prowled the Agora, trying to win over fence-sitters.

Mr. Hurley complained that students had become too sheeplike and were treating the area as if it were a mandatory free speech zone. In the fury of anti-Trump sentiment, he said, the normal rules of civil liberties had been willingly suspended.

The past few months have brought a flurry of Democratic candidates and their surrogates to campus ahead of the traditional first-in-the-nation nominating contest on Monday. But students say it is not the same without chalking.

Mr. Hayes is making do by turning himself into a roving signpost, a kind of Pied Piper with a Warren button on his chest and a sign jutting out of his backpack on which he writes his message of the day. “Anything is possible,” read one, which was disputed by his philosophy professor.

The day after the Democratic primary debate in Des Moines this month, his sign offered a quote from Ms. Warren about courage. It got compliments, Mr. Hayes said, but he still missed the spontaneity of chalking.

Regarding the new policy, Mr. Hayes offered a quotation from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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