Two demonstrations of the First Amendment were notably absent from Cal Poly’s campus Fall 2018: the Free Speech Wall and the protests against it. For those who missed it, there is no reason to worry; the Cal Poly College Republicans have opened up their Free Speech Gallery on Dexter Lawn.
The College Republicans said this year it is a gallery rather than a wall so not to be associated with the border wall. The gallery will be up from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Tuesday, April 2, through Friday, April 5, according to liberal studies sophomore and Cal Poly College Republicans Executive Director Caroline Martin. The gallery will not be up Thursday, April 4, but will be up April 8-11. She also said Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) requires someone to be with the gallery at all times, which is why it will be taken down at night.
In addition to some administrators, some Cal Poly students have taken issue with the timing of the gallery because it is set to be in place for the same week as PolyCultural Weekend, a weekend for admitted students to visit campus and attend events put on by Cal Poly cultural organizations running April 5-7; it will also be the one-year anniversary of the blackface incident.
This is just the latest development in years of controversy surrounding the Free Speech Wall on Cal Poly’s campus.
In the past, the wall has reportedly featured homophobic, racist and Islamophobic comments and drawings, including a large drawing of the prophet Mohammed in 2016, which is forbidden in the Islamic religion.
Members of the organization Students for Quality Education (SQE) have raised concerns with the wall being present during PolyCultural Weekend, due to the wall historically featuring offensive comments towards minority groups on campus.
According to SQE member and electrical engineering senior Alejandro Bupara, having the Free Speech Wall, which he refers to as the “Hate Speech Wall,” on campus during PolyCultural Weekend would be hugely problematic.
“Admitted marginalized students [will] have to go past [the wall] and see all that filth,” Bupara said.
In response to the complaints surrounding the Cal Poly College Republicans’ chosen date, Stanford maintained that the wall should not be an issue.
“Free speech is for everyone, no matter if it’s PolyCultural Weekend or not,” Stanford said. “That could maybe even be a part of it, and they could write what they want to on the wall.”
The Free Speech Wall made its first appearance at Cal Poly in Nov. 2011. Cal Poly alumnus and former Cal Poly College Republicans’ President Brendan Pringle started the tradition at Cal Poly. Pringle said the wall was the club’s way of participating in the Young America’s Foundation’s Freedom Week, which takes place from November 6-11 and celebrates both Veterans Day and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In past years, the Free Speech Wall has been constructed to commemorate the Berlin Wall, as well as to celebrate the freedom of speech enjoyed in the United States that those living under communist rule were not privy to.
According to Pringle, the wall was not the subject of controversy when it debuted in 2011.
“People from both sides of the aisle would write on it,” Pringle said. “If someone disagreed with something someone else had said, they would just cross it out and write something different.”
Starting in 2015, SLO Solidarity, a progressive group on campus, began protesting the wall and the offensive comments on it.
“The things written on [the Free Speech Wall] were disgusting,” Cal Poly alumnus and member of SLO Solidarity Matt Klepfer said. “It became a very visible symbol of our campus climate.”
Klepfer described the protests at the wall as more of a discussion.
“I remember folks coming together to strategize, ‘How do we take action to make this campus a better place?’ at the wall,” Klepfer said. “Out of [those discussions], SLO Solidarity had some very large rallies and protests, but those were more about the campus.”
This is the first year since the wall debuted at Cal Poly in 2011 that it did not take place during fall quarter. According to Stanford, the club decided to hold off on the wall until later in the year because members were busy working on local political campaigns during Fall 2018.
Although the date change takes the focus away from the Berlin Wall, Stanford said the wall will still serve the same purpose of celebrating freedom of speech.
“For the campus, a lot of the meaning behind the Berlin Wall got lost, and we were just focusing on the free speech aspect, so we didn’t see a huge problem with moving it away from when the Berlin Wall fell,” Stanford said. “I think it will still have the same kind of impact no matter the time we do it.”
For some, this change was viewed as contentious. Cal Poly College Republicans’ Adviser and French professor Brian Kennelly said he cautioned the club against having a wall this year after Freedom Week had passed.
“I told them, ‘It will no longer coincide with this commemorative event that this wall was constructed for, and if you do have this wall later in the year, [the club] might be seen as being divisive,’” Kennelly said.
Klepfer cited this change in timing as evidence that the Free Speech Wall is not about what the Cal Poly College Republicans say it is about.
“The College Republicans say it’s all about commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Klepfer said. “Now that it’s not happening around the anniversary of the Berlin Wall, clearly that really shows that it was never about that. It was about creating a platform for people, and frankly their own members, to write the things that they want to say that they know are f**ked up things to say. There’s a reason you can’t say these things that are degrading and racist and super f**ked up.”
Due to the anonymity the wall provides, it is impossible to know who is responsible for the offensive comments that have been made in years past. Stanford insisted that the statements on the wall, or gallery in this year’s case, do not represent the club’s views. The club does not endorse any of the statements, just the right of individuals to say them.
“We can’t regulate what gets put on the wall, because that then defeats the whole purpose of free speech,” Stanford said. “It sucks that people kinda suck and put bad things on there. It’s awful, but filtering the wall isn’t going to change the people writing it, and the wall is supposed to be a representation of free speech.”
If the gallery does stand tall throughout PolyCultural Weekend, the comments on it may give visiting admitted students an inside look at another side of Cal Poly’s campus culture.
Correction: A previous version of this article only mentioned some of the days the gallery would be up.