The university is contending with students over exactly where to draw the line when it comes to chalk slogans on campus.

The recent proliferation of chalk writings reveal everything from presidential candidate endorsements on concrete trash cans, to campus event promotions in the University Union Plaza, to advertising for Web sites on the steps of the Education building.

While all of these messages are covered under the free speech blanket granted to public universities, the chalk itself poses a different kind of problem that brings up liability issues.

University Police Department Chief Bill Watton said most students don’t realize it, but chalk is considered a hazardous material, and the cleanup required to get rid of it poses huge costs to the university.

“From a political standpoint, student slogans are covered,” Watton said. “Cal Poly is a free speech area; so as long as the messages can’t be considered hate speech or obscene, they’re not criminal.”

But he went on to explain that the huge cleanup costs associated with chalk bring up issues of vandalism and graffiti, and that students can be held civilly liable for those costs if they haven’t received prior approval or if they don’t clean the chalk up properly.

The Cal Poly chapter of Students for Barack Obama felt the ramifications of university policy come down on them as they prepared themselves for Super Tuesday on Feb. 5.

Molly McFarland, modern languages and literature sophomore and a member of Students for Barack Obama, said the club got in trouble with university personnel twice as they were chalking up campus prior to the presidential primaries.

The first time the group was warned was when they were out early in the morning to write messages supporting Obama and advising students where to find local polling locations.

McFarland said UPD suddenly pulled up beside those students seen chalking, sat them down, asked for their information and warned them that the university considered the chalk to be a form of graffiti.

McFarland acknowledged the club hadn’t received prior approval to chalk because she said she didn’t know that it was required.

She said Students for Barack Obama were using non-toxic chalk, so she was alarmed to find out that the university considered it to be a hazardous material. Friends involved with the Focus the Nation environmental summit had specifically told her that non-toxic chalk was not an environmental hazard.

Nonetheless, McFarland said Students for Barack Obama were later warned again about their chalking, this time by a representative from Associated Students Inc., as the group worked to promote their cause around the University Union on Feb. 5.

McFarland said she was approached in the UU by an ASI staff member and was told that the club would be sent a bill amounting to $30 per hour for the time the university had to spend cleaning up their chalk.

“At first I was kind of angry,” McFarland said. “Knowing how much we had worked on this, and considering that what we were doing was supposed to be a positive thing – trying to get people inspired and passionate and excited about politics – and then to be condemned for that, I really felt like ASI was not being very conducive to student activism.”

She said that Students for Barack Obama had decided to use chalk rather than just flyers to market themselves, because they found it generated a greater student reaction.

“Chalk jumps out at people,” she said, adding that after a day of chalking, people commented on the club’s presence on campus. “People will come up to us and ask, ‘Wow, how many Obama people are on campus? I see his name everywhere.’”

McFarland added she thought what Students for Barack Obama was doing was a positive contribution to the university environment.

“We weren’t trying to do anything destructive or negative,” she continued. “We wanted to promote our candidate and make sure people knew where to find their polling location on Super Tuesday.”

Michelle Broom, public relations and marketing coordinator for ASI, said that chalking is not outright prohibited on campus but that student organizations need to first file an E-plan request with ASI at the UU Epicenter.

This plan – which would include an agreement with the specific place and dates for chalking, as well as a contract for the organization to clean up the chalk – would then be sent to Facility Services.

Breaching or not filling out a contract would then be dealt with through the university rather than ASI.

“We just want to see … students taking the necessary steps to clean it up,” she said. “We understand the need for them to get the information out about their events, but we want to see responsible use.”

Broom went on to explain that ASI acts more like a liaison between students and Facility Services when it comes to chalking, rather than as law enforcement when those policies are broken.

“We aren’t the police for chalking activities,” she said. “ASI just assists students with completing an e-plan … ultimately it’s the university that will enforce chalking without prior application.”

ASI does have specific guidelines outlined in its University Union policy for chalking. The policy opens by first discouraging students from using chalk as a marketing tool, citing “the negative environmental and resource impacts associated with it (removal via washing wastes water and runs the risk of introducing pollutants into the natural storm water removal network of campus streams).”

The policy also outlines specific guidelines for chalking approval, including that it is only considered for members of the campus community or outside organizations co-sponsoring a Cal Poly club event. Other policy details include that chalk is water-soluble, is allowed to stay on for a maximum of five days, and is not allowed on building surfaces or walls.

Broom encouraged all student organizations to familiarize themselves with the full ASI chalking policy before submitting an E-plan request.

Watton said the police and university would like to encourage students to find better alternatives to market their cause.

“(The chalk) is really a big waste of money, and there are better ways for students to get their message out,” he said.

“It’s a hazardous material that then has to be cleaned up properly,” Watton said, explaining that the university takes special measures to first get the chalk off of the concrete, and then vacuum it up. “It’s not just meant to be washed down the drains and out into our oceans.”

Watton said that the chalk issue has been going on for several years now, but that it does seem to be seasonal, especially given the national politics playing out on campus right now.

“Free speech is great, but students have to be reasonable with that,” he continued. “They need to be taking into consideration the potential costs both to the university and to themselves for cleanup.”

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