Leopold Goldschmidt, freshman, felt the need to take immediate action after learning through a group chat about the latest incident with the graffiti wall — a message stating #TransLivesMatter had been altered to #AllLivesMatter.
“I didn’t want anyone to have to deal with seeing that (…) My friend had paint and they were like ‘I’m going to go do this.’ I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll join you,’” Goldschmidt said. “Because we didn’t want anyone who might be seriously affected by it to see it. So we took it down as fast as possible.”
Goldschmidt is a member of Student Senate, which has been looking into the graffiti wall topic since the issue of hate speech being written on the wall was brought to their attention in late January. While Senate does not hold formal authority over the graffiti wall, they can bring requests to administration as representatives of the student body.
The discussion culminated in a vote at Senate’s meeting on Thursday, Feb. 13, in which senators did not vote in favor of the wall’s removal as had been advocated by some of its members. Nor did they vote for the wall remaining as it currently is.
Instead, Senate voted for a middle ground option, in which they will look into how the graffiti wall can be moved or changed to restrict individuals’ ability to anonymously write inflammatory messages.
The vote followed a presentation earlier in the meeting of the results of a survey Senate had conducted, which had asked for students’ opinions about the graffiti wall. 258 students responded to Senate’s survey, of which 70.5% were against taking the graffiti wall down.
In the meeting’s ensuing discussion of the graffiti wall issue and the survey results, Senate exec members and other senators cautioned the assembly on how to interpret the survey’s results. It was emphasized that survey respondents were only given a “black and white” option of what should be done with the wall, and that the anonymous comments students wrote in to the survey revealed a greater amount of mixed feelings about the wall.
Comments included in Senate’s presentation of the results expressed various sentiments, from those stating disgust at hate speech being written to ones stating that the wall was an important outlet of expression.
The graffiti wall is located in the Quads, where Goldschmidt lives. While Goldschmidt has ceased to pay attention to the wall due to annoyance with what is written on it, they believe that hate speech has been written on it a few times this year.
In an interview with TKS, Goldschmidt discussed this and members of the LGBTQ+ community’s frustration over the burden of removing hateful messages on the wall being left to them.
“As far as I know, no one who isn’t a part of the queer community or — I hear there were racist things last year — people who weren’t part of those communities, I don’t think they ever have bothered to cover it up,” Goldschmidt said.
The graffiti wall has been the location of controversy in the past, such as last year when in the midst of the debate between Knox’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) and Common Ground, the phrases “Gays suck dick” and “Fund IVCF” were painted on it.
Senator Ashley Kerley, senior — who was involved in the Common Ground’s effort last year to advocate for the defunding of IVCF — stated at Senate that she had believed last year the wall was coming down, and that she would have directly advocated for it then if not for having her attention elsewhere.
Kerley discussed in her comments at Senate a need for them to have a plan of action on the wall, believing that it would otherwise leave LGBTQ+ students at Knox feeling as if their concerns about the wall creating an unsafe environment were being simply ignored.
She also expressed frustration at hearing about how efforts needed to be made to combat hate, as she believes the LGBTQ+ community has already put significant effort into this area.
Some members of Senate such as Yohan Chauhan, freshman, felt that Senate should follow the will of the campus expressed in the survey. Chauhan also expressed feeling that previous discussion of the wall at Senate’s Jan. 30 meeting — in which a straw poll of Senate expressed wide support for the wall’s removal — had been one sided and made it intimidating to express dissenting opinions.
Chauhan later added that he respected that the LGBTQ+ had made efforts to combat hate, but that it was a moral responsibility of the rest of the student body to also combat it and rebrand the wall from its current perception.
Senators also made arguments defending the wall on the basis of its potential for the spread of positive messages, with Dining Services Chair Pascal Ye, senior, remarking on having fond memories such as seeing a “Happy Birthday” message for him on the wall.
Other senators such as Health and Wellness Chair Tina Jeon, senior, stated that from directly speaking with students at tabeling it was clear they did not see it in a black and white matter, enjoying having the space for expression but disliking the writing of hate speech onto it.
While Jeon was not sure of a solution to the problem, she did believe there were possible alternative outlets for expression, and that more students should take responsibility for the wall if they considered it an icon of campus.
Senator Robin Thompson, junior, was among the senators who also observed that while the consensus of the student body based on tabling was against the wall being taken down, the feelings of the marginalized community impacted by the hate speech should not entirely be dismissed.
Treasuer Andrew Liput, junior, noted that he had directly spoken to students who had a negative opinion of the graffiti wall and how it is currently used, but had voted not to take it down because of believing some type of space for expression was needed.
Sean Gardner, junior, missed the opening portion of the meeting set aside for public comments, but Senate voted to yield him time to state his thoughts. He characterized the individual responsible for writing the discussed comments on the graffiti wall as a troll, and felt therefore Senate’s best option was to do nothing about the wall in order to not give attention to it.
Gardner expanded on his thoughts in an interview with TKS. He noted that he would likely be defending the individual if the #AllLivesMatter comment was on a different part of the wall, rather than covering someone else’s words up.
While it is not known that only one person is responsible for the writing that has been done on the wall, Gardner believed it is likely to be a single person.
“If we do anything on the wall, we’re just giving him a victory. And I don’t think he deserves a victory (…) and what he’s trying to do, at least from my understanding, is he’s trying to inflame tensions on campus,” Gardner said. “Because right now, I don’t think you can say the political climate on campus is particularly calm.”
Gardner believed that the best way to react to instances of hate speech would not be by making an effort to suppress, but to engage with it.
“The way you counter this behavior is not to stoop down to that kind of level,” Gardner said.
Senate’s exec chose to conduct the vote on the issues through a secret ballot, in which senators had the three options of taking the wall down, leaving it as is or finding a way to keep in some form while deterring hate speech from being written on it.
79.2% of senators voted for that third option, which possibly will involve either moving the wall to a different location or in some way replacing it with another medium of expression. 8.3% voted to leave it as is, and 12.5% voted for the option of taking it down.
Senate will discuss in the following weeks what form their proposed solution to the issue will take, with possibilities that have been suggested already including making the wall inaccessible at night or somehow increasing the possible monitoring of it.
While Goldschmidt said to TKS that they were withholding judgement until the process is complete, they believed it was possible for Senate to reach a conclusion that would satisfy people on most sides if they found a way to preserve the forum of expression while preventing anonymous use of it.
Goldschmidt believed that those with hateful beliefs would go silent without an anonymous forum, and if they chose to speak their views publically, they could then be directly addressed.
“I think there’s a big difference between someone spreading hate speech anonymously and someone choosing to come and say it, because then they can be held accountable,” Goldschmidt said.