Crossing Wesleyan University's campus usually requires walking
over colorful messages chalked on the ground. They can be as
innocent as meeting announcements, but in a growing number of cases
the language is meant to shock. It's not uncommon, for instance, to
see lewd references to professors' sexual preferences scrawled
across a path at the Middletown, Conn., campus.
At Harvard Law School, it was a virtual message rather than a
chalked one that recently caused a stir. A white student used the
word "Nig" in an online class discussion, one incident among several
this year that African-American students say make them feel
In response, officials and students at both schools are now
debating ways to steer their communities away from forms of
expression that offend or harass. In the process, they're butting up
against the difficulties of regulating speech at institutions that
pride themselves on fostering open debate.
Universities throughout the United States have long struggled
with the right balance in protecting both students who bear
unpopular messages and those who might take offense. In the past
decade, conservatives often charged that a wave of political
correctness left them speechless. But when it comes to regulating
speech, students across the political spectrum can end up feeling
At Wesleyan, the gay and lesbian community was most vocal about
feeling silenced when President Douglas Bennet announced a
moratorium this fall on chalked messages.
Mr. Bennet says he had gotten used to seeing occasional chalkings
filled with four-letter words. Campus tradition made any horizontal
surface not attached to a building a potential billboard. But when
chalkings began taking on a more threatening and obscene tone,
Bennet decided to act.
"This is not acceptable in a workplace and not acceptable in an
institution of higher learning," Bennet says.
The moratorium has sparked much debate about the proper bounds of
speech on this famously liberal liberal-arts campus.
The chalking debate
Wesleyan junior Gina Zorzi says she's been chalking intentionally
provocative messages such as "Can I spank you?" since she was a
freshman. She says the chalkings are meant to raise awareness about
issues not sufficiently addressed on campus and to "reclaim" it as a
place that's safe to discuss sexuality.
"This is a space where you don't have to be ashamed," says Ms.
Zorzi, who has not let the moratorium stop her from putting chalk to
So far, though, most students are abiding by the moratorium,
despite the lack of a mechanism for enforcing it. Faculty are
divided over the issue; some have signed a letter supporting the
measure, but a majority of professors attending a recent faculty
meeting voted against it.
Political science professor Vijay Pinch argues that, in addition
to making the campus less attractive, chalking doesn't add much to
"I'm puzzled by the position that somehow anonymous chalkings
done in the middle of the night facilitate discourse and help
students find a safe place," Mr. Pinch says.
For now, Bennet is seeking input about what kind of message-
posting policy the school should adopt. The student assembly
recently passed a resolution saying the "right to speech comes with
implicit responsibilities to respect community standards."
Chalking has created controversy at other colleges, as well. The
University of Kentucky, for instance, is about to implement a policy
that limits it to a few designated areas on campus.
Other public universities have confronted problems this year
while considering various ways of regulating where students can
As government entities, public universities run into First
Amendment restrictions against regulations based on the content of
speech, says Russell Weaver, a law professor at the University of