Free Speech? They're All Chalk

LA Times, Op. Ed.
November 21, 2002

Attention must be paid. And it will be, if the chalkers have anything to say
about it.

That's the message coming from college and university campuses across the
country these days, where a controversial form of political protest is
stirring up a rumpus.

The practice, in which students use colored chalk to scrawl often
deliberately lewd -- though purportedly consciousness-raising -- slogans and
drawings on campus walkways, came under fire at Wesleyan University last
month.

College President Douglas J. Bennet, who previously had tolerated fairly
racy scribble on his sidewalks, declared a moratorium on chalking after he
saw pornographic references to specific faculty members.

Predictably, many students and professors have protested the ban, while
others have applauded it as long overdue.

In the last few years, similar debates have arisen on other campuses,
including USC, UC Berkeley, Swarthmore and Williams, but most administrators
haven't forbidden the practice. They should.

Chalkers defend their pranks by invoking their right to free expression.

This is a bogus claim, primarily because chalking doesn't necessarily
qualify as protected speech but also because even if it did, chalkers
couldn't defend it as such for the simple reason that they don't really
believe in free speech.

An argument made recently in a chalking case in Santa Cruz may help explain
why chalking isn't always protected speech. City Atty. John G. Barisone
argued that police did not violate a homeless woman's right to free speech
when they arrested her for chalking a sidewalk. According to California case
law, he said, regulating speech in public venues doesn't violate the 1st
Amendment if the restriction is based on the method of expression rather
than the content and if alternative methods of expression are available.

In the Santa Cruz case, both conditions were satisfied, and the woman was
convicted of defacing public property.

Apply this standard to campus chalkings and 1st Amendment objections
likewise disappear.

The content of what is being expressed needn't be an issue; sensible
objections to campus chalking can be made on purely aesthetic grounds.
Chalking is graffiti, it's ugly, and it should be illegal on campus for the
same reason that it's illegal in most other places. It diminishes quality of
life, and if everyone did it, college idylls would become as squalid as
subway tunnels.

Certainly, alternative methods of expression are available on campus.
Students can publish their views in college newspapers. They can print
pamphlets and hand them out at student unions or even on campus walkways.
They need not deface college property.

By this reasonable definition, chalking isn't really protected speech at
all.

But for argument's sake, let's say that the California standard is hogwash
and that chalking should enjoy 1st Amendment protection.

If students want to make this case, they're going to have to accept one
particularly inconvenient truth about free expression. It applies to
everyone, not just your friends and co-conspirators.

Naturally, though, chalkers don't see it this way.

The same students who shriek loudest in defense of their right to deface
sidewalks with intentionally offensive "speech" are usually those who
campaign hardest for enforcing draconian politically correct "hate speech"
codes.

They're also often the same people who pilfer entire print runs of
conservative campus newspapers when those papers run objectionable
commentaries.

Not exactly civil libertarians, are they? Nope, just the usual wilding packs
of self-entitled, sophomoric pranksters falling back on high principles when
it suits them.

It's time they get the spanking they deserve or start living up to what free
speech really means.