The Tully Center for Free Speech

Free Speech Zone

American graffiti

By Roy Gutterman, December 11, 2013

The irony was inescapable:  graffiti scrawled on a wall just below the First Amendment.  The message, a critical jab at the Newhouse School and Syracuse University, was one of roughly a half-dozen tags found across campus early Monday morning.

“#1 in communications, last in free speech” was spray painted in bright orange on the western wall of the Newhouse 3.  It was a less-than-subtle jab at the university, which has not had the greatest record when it comes to free speech and debate over the past decade.

The vandals took shots at the university overall, with statements about the quality of the university, war, revolution and other political topics. Yes, vandals.

Rather than writing a letter to the editor, gathering for a peaceful protest on the Quad or the Schine Student Center atrium or posting signs in the grassy strip between Schine and Newhouse, the vandals chose to spray paint their messages on campus buildings.

A number of photos were posted on The Daily Orange’s Twitter feed and local news channels covered the incident.  By midday Monday, university cleaning crews had removed most of the graffiti, though it is still obvious something was there.

As I went to survey the scene Monday at noon, two students were walking away, shaking their heads, after taking photos.  Then, the two university workers who had just finished power washing away the message also shook their heads in frustration and disbelief. They said they had been working since the early morning hours all over campus.  They lamented, “Why couldn’t they do this in the summer.”

As much as I respect dissent, opinions, debate and irreverence, the culprits are vandals.  Spray-painting slogans, catchphrases and even political commentary on buildings across campus is a crime. Even if you want to argue that it is a form of free speech, the messages would have carried a wide range of First Amendment protections had they been printed in books or newspapers or on posters or t-shirts.  One of the university workers proffered chalk.

Even a free speech absolutist like me has to question the motives and sanity of the vandals.  If there was a political message behind the graffiti, they easily lost their credibility by defacing campus buildings.  If it was some sort of prank with a humorous objective, the joke is lost on many of us.

Interim Chancellor Eric Spina issued a well-balanced statement, acknowledging the right to free speech, but in the right place.

“Every member of our campus community is entitled to his or her right to free speech, and there are many constructive ways to have your voice heard in our community.  We are saddened and disappointed that anyone would attempt to exercise that right in such a destructive manner. These are a set of important and historic buildings that hold great meaning for so many of our students, faculty, staff and alumni and to see them defaced in this manner is disheartening.”

Syracuse Department of Public Safety officers were canvasing the area in the middle of the night, interviewing at least two students who were pulling an all-nighter in Newhouse early Monday morning.  With the campus covered by video surveillance cameras, DPS must have video of the vandalism.

If anyone is ever caught, it will be interesting to hear them speak out and explain their motives and message.  That might be some speech we can accept, as long as it is not spray painted on another campus building.

Roy S. Gutterman is an associate professor and director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.