After controversial graffiti, the university struggles with unregulated free speech
On the morning of November 15, Pacific University students awoke to the Spirit Bench sprayed in Palestine’s red, green and white colors, circled by sliced watermelon, with “Free Palestine” written in the center. It is unclear when, but soon after the bench faced yet another act: Swastikas were said to be covering the messaging on the bench. And then, no more than two hours later, the bench was dumped in white paint by Campus Public Safety facilities.
The spirit bench was donated by the graduating class of 1908. At the time, it was called the “senior bench” and meant to stand as a symbol and source of pride. The 1908 Pacific Index archives read, “Miss Esther Silverman then dedicated the substantial stone seat which the Seniors have presented to the college. She spoke of the desire of the class to leave some last mark of their love and appreciation and her hope that the seat would prove a useful and lasting token.”
The beginning of the tradition of painting the bench is uncertain, but is presumed to have begun in the 1970s.
In 1990, because of damage, the bench was replaced—and since then has endured decades of paint layers from students. Most often, the bench has been a safe space for activism, free speech, developing artists, and go-team enthusiasm. Over the past few years, the bench has seen activism more frequently, providing an anonymous canvas for Black Lives Matter, abortion rights, and MeToo sentiments.
Until the most recent incident, the university administration has not stepped in to moderate the messages.
In the days and weeks since Hamas attacks in the Middle East, and Israel’s subsequent military response, dozens of American college campuses have erupted with various protests and counterprotests, and a large uptick in what is categorized as hate crimes; enough so, that the Education Department opened up wide-reaching investigations at several prominent schools. A fraternity house at Georgia Tech University was painted with the phrase “Free Palestine” on its exterior. Meanwhile, Stanford and Cal-Berkeley also witnessed rallies and heightened tensions among their student bodies; tensions were so intense at Cornell that the university shut down classes for several days.
Additionally, Sacramento State found multiple antisemitic displays around their campus over the month of September. In response, the leaders of the city met to address the issues. According to a press release, school officials there made it clear that they wanted students to “continuously and vociferously condemn hate speech and hate symbols. This type of defacement is deeply troubling and hurtful.”
WHAT IS PACIFIC DOING
After university officials painted over the Spirit Bench, President Jenny Coyle sent a campus-wide email titled “Denouncing hateful graffiti on our campuses.” In response, some students expressed apprehension with President Coyle’s association of hate speech with the phrase “Free Palestine,” or suggesting that it was inappropriate to discuss the conflict on the Spirit Bench.
Following that email, the Index interviewed President Coyle regarding the recent paintings of the bench as well as her response. President Coyle clarified that her email was intended to target the proliferation of hate speeches occurring on campus specifically. Pacific allowed the “Free Palestine” message to remain visible for a few hours after it was painted, and they have no intention of taking disciplinary action against the students responsible. The time frame is unclear when swastikas were painted on top of the Palestine message, but the painting of the bench followed.
Even so, some students were displeased with the blurring of the two distinct topics in the same email. Moreover, there were incidents earlier in the term of swastikas being drawn in Walter Hall and Marsh Hall that had no public acknowledgment, while “Free Palestine” did.
“I’m not equating Free Palestine with hate,” President Coyle told the Index. “I truly believe that the intent of what our students and our community have told me and why it was drawn on the Spirit Bench. It’s advocacy from the Palestinian people. But our Jewish community also has really deep feelings, and they’re fearful of their safety here in the US.”
President Coyle said that she has received visits from students from Jewish and Palestinian backgrounds who openly shared their personal perspectives, and expressed fear and concern regarding their safety. Students from have
“It’s a balancing act,” explained President Coyle. “As an institution, we do promote free speech, and we should be facilitating courageous conversations where people can talk about what things mean and we should be educating,” she said. “I think our path forward is to focus on that.”
THE NEED FOR THE BENCH
In a subsequent interview with Jaye Cee Whitehead, the Acting Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, she expressed that the conversation around the recent events happening on the bench should be two separate conversations. One conversation to discuss boundaries surrounding the bench and what the community finds acceptable and unacceptable. This would entail students and staff reconstructing how the bench operates, establishing boundaries, and redefining what the bench represents. Whitehead stated that students with ideas should speak out since the planning on moving forward is in its beginning stages.
“I think I would like to see students come together and decide if they think the bench is a good thing,” explained Whitehead. “So the stuff that we really love about it we can continue, and the stuff that gets ugly we can prevent.”
The other necessary conversation to follow this topic is envisioned to be a series of educational events about what is happening in the Middle East. The first event to occur was November 21, titled “Understanding the Politics of the Events in Gaza.”
“I think the solution is being able to have those conversations two ways,” said Whitehead. “Having a sense of world history, politics, and complications gives us more of a foundation as a community to be able to have exchanges where we disagree. But it’s a disagreement that respects everybody’s humanity, which is the difference between respectful dialogue and hate speech, where one degrades humanity, and the other one attempts to uplift it.”
Whitehead added that these educational events will continue through the academic year.