Bring our rocks back!

Anika Sultana | Mercury Staff

“Censorship.” “Cowardly.” “Bring our rocks back.”

These were the sentiments expressed by students the morning of Nov. 20, when UTD administration removed the Spirit Rocks from campus.

Admin claimed the rocks were never intended for “extended political discourse,” like the month long back-and-forth between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups before their removal. But this argument is a smokescreen and a lie. UTD fears students expressing themselves, and the removal of the rocks sets a dangerous precedent for free expression on campus. At best, admin’s decision to remove the Spirit Rocks is damaging to campus culture and university integrity. At worst, it is an unconstitutional violation of students’ free speech.

UTD admin: if you intend to build back trust with the student body, correct your actions and bring back the rocks immediately.

With the tense climate surrounding the conflict between Israel and Palestine, admin is clearly nervous about students expressing their political views in a public forum. But UTD must remember it is beholden to the student body. If students use the rocks to express unpopular views or stand in solidarity with Palestine or Israel, then the university must protect that speech, not suppress it.

In its Nov. 20 statement, Student Affairs justified the removal by arguing the rocks “negatively [impacted] people on and off campus,” blatantly misrepresenting Comets’ feelings and denying their right to self-expression. The vast majority of The Mercury’s Instagram followers — 92% according to the latest poll — disagree with the decision. And even if some rock paintings might have caused discomfort, UTD’s own free speech policy says that to make a political argument is not punishable, “even if some listeners are offended.”

“The freedom of speech, expression, and assembly are fundamental rights and central to the mission of the university,” the policy states, in accordance with state and federal law. UTD does not see that removing a treasured venue of student expression is directly contrary to this position.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has condemned the Spirit Rocks’ removal as damaging to campus culture at best and unconstitutional at worst. Removing the rocks for platforming “extended political discourse” about Israel and Palestine could qualify as viewpoint discrimination, where the university attempts to silence lawful discussion on a particular topic. Even though this discourse was civil, UTD found it unacceptable, and despite The Mercury’s multiple attempts to contact members of admin, we continuously received either a lack of comment or responses that failed to point out which policy violation caused the removal of the Spirit Rocks.

Student Affairs claimed that Comets have multiple other avenues to express themselves on campus, but upon closer inspection, none are as free. Flyers, protests and bulletin boards all require approval or are subject to removal and regulation from admin. The Spirit Rocks did not require students to wade through layers of bureaucracy; anyone with an idea and some paint could make themselves heard on a landmark beloved by all.

College campuses have always been centers of activism in the U.S. In 2023, we celebrate groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which played a vital role in ending segregation and advancing the civil rights movement. But in the 60s, university administrators branded SNCC as “agitators” instead of activists. Just like the silencers of the past who claimed to defend against unrest and harm, UTD muzzles young people by branding their opinions too disruptive the moment they become inconvenient.

The removal of the rocks is even more egregious considering UTD prides itself on its diverse student body, with a history of platforming organizations and events across the political spectrum. It has allowed hot-button topics on the Spirit Rocks and platformed controversial groups like Turning Point USA, and yet it seems to draw the line following a progressive outpouring of support for human rights in Palestine.

While researching for its Oct. 16 story about the rocks, The Mercury was told by Dean of Students Amanda Smith that admin does not police the content painted on the rocks unless the law or Student Code of Conduct is violated. And in President Richard Benson’s Oct. 16 letter, he explicitly praised student groups peacefully expressing themselves and raising charity money for civilians in the Middle East. And yet, admin has uprooted the Spirit Rocks for being too political just a month after commending their use for free expression. This suggests UTD, in fact, wants to selectively silence a sensitive political issue by leaving students with no means to express themselves.

What’s more, the removal of the rocks bypassed typical procedures: Admin gave no warnings to students regarding impermissible content on the rocks, and the usual group which oversees decisions surrounding the Spirit Rocks, HOP, was not consulted. Nor was Student Government alerted to the decision until the Nov. 20 mass email from Student Affairs. Removing the rocks in complete secrecy can only suggest UTD has something to hide. Admin must make further decisions about student expression openly, with full transparency and input from SG and the HOP committee.

Removing the Spirit Rocks removes a 15-year tradition of self-expression, creativity and passion. It destroys a bastion of school culture in a community that famously feels like it has none. The Spirit Rocks were the heart of our campus’ artistic spirit and free speech. They even had their own beloved Instagram account, @utdrockwars, and the outpouring of love for the rocks and rage at their uprooting sends a clear message to admin.

“Suppression.” “Infuriating.” “Disappointed.” Students have sent dozens of emails to SG leadership, left hundreds of comments on UTD’s social media, given interviews with local news branches about their disapproval and much more. On Nov. 20, dozens of tiny rocks were painted in the trans and Palestinian flag colors and scattered where the Spirit Rocks used to be. Chalk art of the word “CENSORSHIP” decorated pavement near the Activity Center. On Nov. 29, students covered the Plinth with chalk to express their now-suppressed beliefs. And throughout the week of Nov. 27, students staged daily demonstrations in response to the removal, with hundreds of students demanding that their platform for free expression be restored.

Students are not letting this decision stand uncontested. They want the rocks back, and they will continue to find creative ways to demand this long after admin find it inconvenient. Muzzling perfectly lawful political speech or removing the rocks entirely is unacceptable. If UTD fails to honor students’ wishes and reinstate our avenue for self-expression, then it will never rebuild the trust it has broken with students.

To university admin: listen to students and reinstate the rocks immediately. It’s not too late to show Comets that you care about their voices.

Anika Sultana | Mercury Staff

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