Bulldog Students for Life question free speech on campus after defacement
In her 20 years of working in higher education, this is Jeni Eltink’s first time having to deal with fake posters for an organization being posted. As the director of Kirby, she deals with how to protect UMD student’s First Amendment rights.
“We want to try to keep any of the fake stuff out of here,” Eltink said.
Bulldog Students for Life, a prolife student organization at UMD, found false posters impersonating their organization around UMD on March 15.
“We are very upset that our organization continues to be targeted on campus,” Noah Maldonado, the Bulldog Students for Life president, said in a video on the Bulldog Students for Life Facebook page addressing the false posters found around the UMD campus. (Noah Maldonado is the former business manager at The Bark.)
In addition to finding fake posters put up, Bulldog Students for Life has also had their club posters torn down. According to Mika Colson, the Bulldog Students for Life vice president, posters started to get torn down during the Fall 2017 semester. Bulldog Students for Life members have even witnessed people tearing posters down right in front of them.
“We’re still estimating the damages but it’s in the hundreds and hundreds of dollars,” Maldonado said.
At UMD, since the campus is connected, posters are seen more than any place that Eltink has worked previously.
“The difficulty is ten different posting areas all over campus, which is not in any way to lessen the financial burden that Bulldog Students for Life has of having their stuff torn down and replacing it or the heartache of seeing that happen, but short of staking out, there is not a whole ton that we are able to do,” Eltink said.
Bulldog Students for Life is not the only club that has experienced incidents of hostility towards their club during the 2017-2018 school year. On April 14, the Muslim Student Association at UMD had hate targeted directly towards their club.
A picture uploaded to Snapchat that included a picture of a poster promoting the Muslim Student Association Islamic Awareness Week, had the words added, “What’s next…..build a bomb workshop?” According to Ayah Abuserrieh, the vice president of the Muslim Student Association, this is the first time that an incident has happened to them.
“This is the first thing that’s happened so far. I’ve never, being in Duluth, I’ve never had any issues whatsoever of facing discrimination, or feeling like I was different at anytime,” Abuserrieh said.
Abuserrieh and other Muslim Student Association members reached out on social media to condem what had happened, and reached out to the community urging people to ask the organization questions.
“Nothing is a stupid question,” Abuserrieh said.
According to Mike Kenyanya, the president of Student Association, these incidents should encourage dialogue between students on tough issues.
“Disagreement is okay, but that should be met with more dialogue, more conversation, communication,” Kenyanya said.
Kenyanya urges students to speak up when they feel that different speech needs to be present at UMD. Kenyanya adds that students are free to seek out Student Association when planning an event, like the organizers of the Speak out for Justice event on April 20.
“In terms of student culture, only students can change that,” Kenyanya said.
Students can help change student culture by reporting incidents of hostility and harassment to the Office of Student Life, Kirby Student Center Staff in Kirby 101 staff or Student Association.
If a student group is facing harassment in the Kirby tabling area, Eltink suggests that if there are two people at the booth, have one person keep talking to the harasser, while the other goes to the Kirby Welcome Desk to get staff involved.
“As quick as possible, we’ll come out and have that conversation of ‘Yes you are welcome to your perspective that this group shouldn’t be here, but guess what? They get to be here,’” Eltink said.
UMD free speech policies are complicated, according to Eltink. A significant part of her job is “parsing through” policies and best practices enforced by other universities around America. By doing this, she wants to make sure that UMD is following the best possible way of upholding the First Amendment right of students.
In the past few years, students at UMD have felt that the university has a responsibility to get involved in what campus organizations say, according to Eltink.
Even though students want the university to be involved in what these organizations say, UMD cannot get involved in the nature of what is said on campus, according to Eltink.
“The idea behind it is that when there is speech that people don’t like, its not that we shut that speech down, it’s that we provide a venue for more speech maybe expressing a different opinion,” Eltink said.
UMD can not shut down speech that is hurtful, but what Eltink suggests if students do not like the speech that a group is putting out, students should first report it to the Kirby 101 office.
If the speech is deemed not to be breaking any laws, UMD cannot get involved. When a club is reported, UMD staff sits down with the group for a non-disciplinary meeting. In the meeting, a staff member will talk to the group to make sure it doesn't happen again, according to Eltink.
“Sometimes we do have to allow speech that we know is going to offend,” Eltink said.
Eltink also suggests that people with an opposing view can start their own group or organize an event with their views to give a venue for more diverse speech.