Questions Of Campus Safety, Free Speech Collide At DePaul University

DePaul Free Speech
DePaul University Wally Gobetz / Flickr
DePaul Free Speech
DePaul University Wally Gobetz / Flickr

Questions Of Campus Safety, Free Speech Collide At DePaul University

The head of DePaul University apologized Thursday evening for how the school has handled recent racial tensions. In an email to students, faculty and staff, Rev. Dennis Holtschneider said his silence on the issue in recent days “has been deafening” and vowed that the school would do better.

“In short, many of our students, staff and faculty felt insufficiently supported by the DePaul community last week, including by me,” he wrote. “For all of this, I deeply apologize.”

This comes a day after roughly 100 students met in a classroom on the Lincoln Park campus to discuss how to navigate a school climate that many had come to perceive as increasingly hostile to minorities.

Even with the cloud of final exams and papers hanging over them, they cycled in and out of the room, staying for however long they could and grabbing slices of pizza.

Organizers with the Black Student Union, which hosted the event, said the idea was to provide a safe space where students could speak openly about what many say is growing hostility on campus toward minorities.

“Whether people believe it or not, people are very distressed about this, I am distressed about this,” said freshman Anais Donald, who confessed that stress over the charged climate has made her unable to sleep most nights. “I have so much going on right now, and I did not need this on top of all that.”

Donald said the tensions have been building at DePaul for months, marked most recently by the reported discovery of a noose outside a student’s dorm room. But things climaxed last Tuesday when school officials found graffiti saying “F--- Mexico” on a campus sidewalk. Just hours later, College Republicans held an event with a conservative pundit and provocateur named Milo Yiannopoulos. Protesters shut the event down.

Donald was among those protesters, and she said Yiannapoulos supporters hurled racial slurs at her and her peers, including the “n” word. Many students report that the harassment continued after the incident was over.

“When you are on Facebook pages, and you are coming after my Twitter and you’re in my mentions calling me a ‘monkey’ and telling me that ‘We can’t have freedom of speech because of people like you,’ or ‘You should just die,’ this stuff is wild,” said Donald. “This is not discourse, this is not freedom of speech.”

But some conservatives on campus see the backlash against the Yiannopoulos talk, as well as the removal of recent pro-Trump and anti-immigration slogans from campus sidewalks, as a freedom of speech issue.

“Regardless of what people say, if you put restrictions on speech, you no longer have free speech,” said John Minster, a freshman and vice president of the College Republicans at DePaul.

Minster said his organization invited Yiannopoulos to speak on campus in order to discuss the topic of free speech. He said polarized political discourse on campus contributes to a healthy academic environment.

“A collegial atmosphere, I would argue, is one that promotes intellectual diversity, is one that promotes diversity of ideas, diversity of viewpoints, diversity of people thinking different things, coming together and talking about those ideas,” said Minster. “And sometimes, sadly, because these are very important issues that we’re dealing with, some people are going to feel sad, they’re going to feel hurt, they’re going to feel offended, that is going to happen.”

But Donald characterized the language of Yiannopoulos and his supporters not as free speech, but as hate speech.

“Calling somebody a ‘wetback’ has very historical implications. Calling me a ‘monkey’ has very historical implications,” she said. “And they know that when they use it.”

Donald said she felt those terms were invoked to recall specific acts of violence committed against people of color, and that permitting such terms to be used against students on campus can embolden individuals to behave violently.

Kevin Quin, a senior, said it’s time for school administrators to step in and distinguish what constitutes free speech versus hate speech

“It’s unfortunate that it took this series of events to bring those questions up,” he said.

Many students said they felt the school should have been better prepared for an expected flare-up at the Yiannopoulos event, and they felt that campus security did not step in to protect their safety. Several students also faulted DePaul administrators for not sharing more information about how the school is handling reports of harassment.

Quin and others were also deeply upset by DePaul President Rev. Dennis Holtschneider’s response to the protest. In an email to the campus community, Holtschneider condemned protesters for disrupting the event and said the speaker should have gotten a “respectful hearing.” But Quin said that response ignores a history of bias in discourse at DePaul and many other university campuses.

“We know historically whose voices have been heard the most and whose voices have been marginalized,” said Quin. “And now, we’re seeing a power shift. We’re seeing the voices of the marginalized, they’re rising, and at least on DePaul’s campus, they’re louder than ever.”

Francine Soliunas said that sitting in on the meeting Wednesday night felt like a trip down memory lane, in many ways. Five decades ago, Soliunas founded the Black Student Union at DePaul, when she was an undergraduate there. She said at the time, she and her peers fought hard to raise consciousness among administrators, peers and faculty about the need for more African-American faculty, the importance of integrating the stories of African-American contributions to various fields of study, and access to resources. Soliunas said she felt proud to hear the DePaul students of today come together to solve the issues that they face.

“But at the same time I’m sitting there thinking, Jesus Christ, did I fail?” she said. “Do they feel that we didn’t accomplish anything fifty years ago when we went through what we went through?”

For now, students said they’re trying to focus on healing, and getting through final exams. After that, they said they’ll have plenty of time to figure out how to change campus policies and culture.