Offensive messages spray-painted on a UNCA protest wall and posted on the Internet have sparked investigations of a campus police officer and a senator in the Student Government Association after a campus political group characterized the messages as threats.
During the week of Oct. 23-27, students were invited to write and spray-paint messages on a 45-foot-long plywood wall erected on the quad. As a political target, the wall was a no-brainer. A project of the campus chapter of the Socialist Unity League of Students for a Democratic Society, it was intended to promote discussion of the massive wall being built by Israel in the West Bank to separate Israelis and Palestinians. Opponents have dubbed it the “Apartheid Wall,” and the student group says it expected the dialogue to include dissenting opinions.
“We encourage people to debate in a constructive way,” SUL-SDS member Charla Schlueter said during an Oct. 30 press conference in the Highsmith University Center on campus. But someone, says the group, took their message way too far.
Words got in the way
For the most part, said Schlueter, the messages that covered the 8-foot-high wall were inscribed under the watchful eyes of SUL-SDS members standing sentry on the quad to make sure the comments stayed focused on the situation in the West Bank. But unregulated messages painted under cover of night appeared almost daily, and a few of them singled out the socialist group and crossed the line into outright intimidation, members say.
“We feel like this is vandalism; we feel this is hate speech,” Schlueter said. “We feel that what has been done to us is a form of terrorism.”
According to the students, one message read, “Kill all Socialists.” but it was painted over before they could photograph it, Standing Committee Chair Kati Ketz told Xpress. Photographs taken by the group and others posted online show messages proclaiming “F**k the Socialists” and “Socialism Sucks.” Throughout the week, the SUL-SDS tried to paint over especially volatile or offensive messages, and the entire wall, erected in support of Palestine Solidarity Week, has been taken down as planned.
But in this case, the big surprise was the people involved. On Oct. 27, SUL-SDS leaders were alerted that photos of the controversial messages had been posted on an Internet site belonging to Campus Police officer Brandon Hunnicutt in response to messages posted by UNCA sophomore Greg Goddard, a student senator. Both Hunnicutt and Goddard have password-protected sites at Facebook, a social-networking Web site popular among college students.
Although both men’s messages leave little doubt as to their feelings about the student group’s philosophy, what remains hazy are the identities of both the hooded figure who appears in one of the pictures and the photographer who took them. Ketz maintains that the hooded figure is Goddard and that Hunnicutt took the photos. At press time, both the school’s personnel department and the dean of students were conducting investigations attempting to confirm or refute the allegations.
Attempts to contact Hunnicutt and Goddard for comment proved unsuccessful, and the administration declined to comment in detail while the investigations were proceeding, citing personnel and student-privacy regulations. On Nov. 2, The Blue Banner, the UNCA student newspaper, reported that Goddard had taken responsibility for the spray-painted messages and had said that Hunnicutt had taken the pictures.
In his postings on Facebook, Goddard compliments the pictures and unleashes a rant of his own, referring to the group as the “Socialist Asshole League” and the “Socialist Douchebag League” and suggesting that SUL-SDS members go to North Korea, where “they may have a better use for you, like weighing down their missiles during testing.” The only direct reference to the spray-painted messages comes at the end, when Goddard signs off with “God Bless America, where freedom of speech and paint reigns supreme.”
That same day, Hunnicutt posted the comment, “I knew I liked you, Greg.”
Free speech or hate speech?
The controversy has stirred a broader discussion about the limits of acceptable speech. There’s a history of hostility toward SUL-SDS on campus, says Ketz, adding that both the group and its members have been threatened before. But the alleged links to both campus security and student government intensify an already-antagonistic environment, Schlueter maintains.
“I don’t feel safe on this campus, and I think I should,” she said at the press conference. “The reason we are pushing this right now is that we want to end it here.” In a letter to the UNCA administration, Ketz wrote that the messages were frightening enough to keep her from attending classes. “Writing these threats is a real act of violence against our group,” her letter states.
The group’s adviser, political science professor Mark Gibney, says the graffiti messages don’t qualify for First Amendment protection as free speech, because the wall was intended to address a specific issue, and clear ground rules were established for participation.
“They weren’t just holding an open forum,” Gibney told Xpress. “They were very circumspect about what messages they wanted.” At a minimum, Gibney said he sees this as an act of vandalism.
On Oct. 30, SUL-SDS members met with UNCA administrators, the chief of the Campus Police and an SGA representative. Hunnicutt has been placed on investigative leave while the personnel department continues its inquiry, Chief Steve Lewis of the Campus Police told Xpress. And SGA President John Noor revealed that there had already been concerns about Goddard’s performance as a senator before this controversy broke.
On Nov. 1, the SGA appointed a six-person committee to consider impeaching Goddard, said Noor. If the committee deems Goddard’s actions sinister, it could also recommend further disciplinary action by the school, though it would be up to the administration whether to act on the recommendation. “We take it very seriously that students could not come to class,” Noor told Xpress.