A painting depicting one of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogans — “Build the Wall” — and a symbolic brick wall have created a firestorm on the University of Minnesota campus, offering students yet another lesson in freedom of speech.
The mural by the Minnesota College Republicans — and its subsequent defacement — remained a frequent conversation topic Tuesday as pedestrians crossed the Washington Avenue Bridge, which connects the east and west banks of the Twin Cities campus. Now, amid hundreds of colorful panels promoting student organizations painted Friday during the school’s annual Paint the Bridge event, the previous work is almost entirely obscured by “Stop White Supremacy” in large gold letters.
Some students denounced the pro-Trump panels as hate speech, saying it targeted minorities and immigrants. That sentiment sparked a rally on the bridge Saturday, where signs plastered the wall with messages of love and images of Gandhi. A fraternity amended their adjacent panel to include “build bridges not walls.”
But university President Eric Kaler, while acknowledging that some found the message offensive, condemned the graffiti and reminded students that Trump’s message was protected speech.
“The University of Minnesota supports a campus climate that welcomes all members of our community and our values of equity and diversity,” he said in a statement to students and faculty members, “but that also ensures the free flow of ideas, even those that are offensive to some.”
He added that “while the University values free speech, the subsequent vandalism of the panel is not the way to advance a conversation.”
Madison Faupel, president of the university’s College Republicans, called the trashing of their mural “disturbing” in a statement Saturday. She also defended Trump’s stance on targeting illegal immigration on the nation’s southern border, which the organization does not consider xenophobic or racist. Faupel could not be reached for additional comment Tuesday.
College Republicans have full control of how to handle the situation and would be permitted to repaint the original image, said university spokesman Steve Henneberry.
This is not the first time students at the U have disagreed on the limits of free speech. At least two guest speakers have been shouted down in the last year for discussing ideas that protesters deemed unsavory or unwelcome at the school.
Most recently, conservative pundit Milo Yiannopoulos, who often rebels against what he calls the exaggerated myth of a “rape culture,” was briefly interrupted by students with noisemakers. A few months earlier, another protest disrupted a guest lecture by an Israeli law professor, delaying the speech by more than 30 minutes before police escorted demonstrators out of the building.
In 2014, there was also an attempt by some faculty and students to revoke a speaking invitation to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
On Tuesday, students took the time to snap photos of the mural — some going out of their way entirely to catch a glimpse of the image everyone was talking about. In addition to the large scrawl, layers of graffiti have emerged in smaller print: no place 4 racism” and “Stop Trump.”
Fellow communication studies majors Priscella Alomaja and Wesley Erickson condemned the vandal’s response, but said the College Republicans’ original message was in poor taste during the current political climate.
“I’m disappointed, it’s pretty disgraceful,” said Erickson, 21.
“I don’t agree with ‘build the wall,’ but everyone has the freedom to express their opinion,” added Alomaja.
Levi Chang said he understood the group’s right to display the phrase, but urged them to respect other student’s feelings, particularly those of Latinos who may be affected. “Their opinion might be victimized,” he said of the Republicans, “but [Latino] culture is being oppressed.”
Construction Management junior Kyle Lescarbeau recalled other partisan signs from previous years, including one that read “Feel the Burn,” in support of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Others this year criticize big government and socialism. Those do not appear to be targeted.
“You don’t have to like every panel on here,” he said, looking around. “But that doesn’t mean you have to vandalize them.”