Groups pressure admin on defacement response

By Lauren Osen

Although the annual e-mail regarding the University’s policy on freedom of speech was sent two weeks ago, some U of C community members remain frustrated with the lack of official, direct response to a pattern of poster defacements.

For the past five years, the Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) has reported defacement of its posters. The administration has never made a direct and public response to these incidents.

This year, the e-mail was sent by Steve Klass, vice president and dean of students in the University, the same week that the defacement of two Student Committee on the Middle East (SCME) posters was brought to the administration’s attention.

“I did not write this e-mail in response to the poster defacement incidents. We did, however, change the timing of this year’s release of the statement in response to recent complaints,” Klass said in an e-mail interview.

Members of the RSOs whose posters were targeted welcome Klass’s e-mail, but say it is not enough.

Jon Hirsch, president of CFI, acknowledged the difficulties in the situation, but said he thought a “more vocal” response was in order.

“Members of our community need to actively condemn these regrettable acts, and work to see that all forms of speech suppression are combated. The only way to reverse the growing trend of poster defacement is to speak about free speech openly and frequently,” Hirsch said.

Vandalism has been targeted at several groups and has varied largely in degree. Some posters were prematurely ripped down, while others had holes burned through them, and swastikas drawn on them. When CFI began taping around their posters so they could not be easily torn down, the posters were cut out of their taped borders.

“I think that the fact that this keeps happening—and that it’s almost as though groups that bring in any conservative or pro-Israel speakers should expect to have this happen to them—shows that the University has not done enough to emphasize that civil discourse and respect for debate is an integral part of its mission,” said SCME member and third-year in the College Rita Koganzon in an e-mail interview.

The SCME posters that were defaced in the Reynolds Club were promoting an event held on November 14 called “Media and Democracy in the Middle East,” and were found with profanities written across them.

According to SCME co-organizer Blythe Dorn, similar incidents have happened in the past two years, but SCME has not reported them as they “haven’t faced a problem as bad as the one faced by CFI.”

Klass stressed that poster defacement is frustrating and difficult to investigate because the vast majority of the incidents occur in public places where anyone might have access to them. Moreover, there are rarely witnesses.

Although Klass’s e-mail directly addressed “poster defacement,” no specific incidents were mentioned.

In response to students who feel that this kind of a response is unsatisfactory, Susan Art, dean of students in the College, said, “I am surprised that claim that the administration has not made a public response, since the timing of the e-mail about free speech and postering was directly related to recent incidents.”

Members of the RSOs that have been targeted with poster defacement say they are not complaining that the administration has not publicly responded to these incidents, but that this response has not been specific enough.

“By no means am I saying that the poster defacements are indicative of a climate of anti-Semitism, but that the regularity of them may be indicative of a climate in which the principle of civil discourse is no longer being taken seriously,” Koganzon said.

Charles Lipson, professor of political science and faculty advisor for CFI, agreed. “The University of Chicago stands for open, liberal discourse. That’s not just cheap talk. It’s a reality here. Suppression of viewpoints like this is simply wrong. Students should say so; faculty should say so; and the administration should say so loudly and clearly.”