Student Affairs removes Spirit Rocks for platforming ‘extended political discourse’

Photo By André Averion | Mercury Staff

The Spirit Rocks, UTD’s preeminent platform for student expression, were removed from campus Nov. 20 after “extended political discourse” about the conflict in Israel and Palestine, raising concerns of censorship.

According to an early morning email from Student Affairs, recent messages on the rocks “have been inconsistent with their original purpose and guidelines,” and “extended political discourse” has negatively affected “people on and off campus.” The removal comes during a time of political tension on campus. In October, the rocks were painted more than 11 times, alternating between messages supporting Palestine and Israel. On Oct. 12, the rocks were painted with an Israeli flag and the words “We are winning,” and on Oct. 14, the rocks were painted with the message “Zionism = Nazism.”

The Spirit Rocks received negative attention from CBS News weeks before the removal due to the second message. Days before the removal, another CBS story on student concerns of antisemitism featured a photo of the rocks with graffiti critical of Israel. In a conversation between Dean of Students Amanda Smith and former Student Government Vice President Margaret Belford on the morning of the removal, Smith said that prior messaging on the rocks was “hate speech.” Smith declined to comment further when The Mercury reached out.

Belford and SG Secretary Alison Spadaro planned to paint the rocks early Nov. 20 for Trans Day of Remembrance, but when they arrived around 9 a.m., the rocks were already gone. The pair grabbed chalk and proceeded to write “CENSORED” on the pavement when Smith approached and asked about the message they were writing.

“We can debate the technical meaning of censorship all day, but at the end of the day, it’s shutting down students and not letting our voices be heard on campus,” Belford said.

Belford said Smith suggested students use alternate methods to express themselves, like posting flyers or tabling at the Plinth. However, Belford pointed out that these are different forms of speech — bulletin board postings are subject to removal at any time, and setting up at the Plinth requires an application and is only allowed in certain locations. UTDSP5001, UTD’s policy on “Speech, Expression and Assembly,” has robust protection for student expression in all forms across the entire campus, except where rules are needed to “preserve the equal rights of others and the other functions of the University.” UTDSP50001 also says that making a political argument is not harassment, “even if some listeners are offended.”

“[Zionism equals Nazism] was a strong statement for sure, but was it hate speech? Was it targeted harassment towards individuals? That’s debatable, especially with the speed at which it was covered up,” Belford said. “The rocks are self-policing. There’s a reason that people can paint whatever they like on there … If people don’t like it, they can paint it right back over.”

The Spirit Rocks have been part of discourse on controversial political topics since their 2008 inception. As early as 2009, they were painted in support of the Iranian Green Movement. In 2011, they were painted in protest of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange’s arrest. In 2015, they were painted in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and in 2020, they were the location of a smaller paint exchange between supporters of BLM and the “Back the Blue” movement.

The SG website shows the guidelines for painting the Spirit Rocks, which were taken off of their original webpage by Nov. 20. It said students and student organizations are welcome to paint the rocks, provided the messages are in “good taste” and do not violate UTD’s Handbook of Operating Procedures, or HOP. In a phone call for The Mercury’s Oct. 16 story on the Spirit Rocks’ politicization, Smith said UTD administrators do not police the content of the rocks and only get involved if messages violate the law or the Student Code of Conduct. It is not clear which policies the recent Spirit Rocks art violated.

Aside from Student Affairs executives, it is unclear what other parties were involved in the decision to remove the rocks. According to the former website, the HOP committee is responsible for recommending and reviewing university policies. However, SG President Srivani Edupuganti said there was no HOP committee meeting about removing the rocks, and that Nov. 20 was the first time SG heard about it.

“They claim to value student input and the student voice, but they took away the only form of student voice or student expression that exists on this campus,” Edupuganti said. “These rocks have been removed before the start of the business day, so it’s very clear that they were trying to do it as quietly as possible.”

In an Instagram poll by The Mercury, 92% of the 1,532 respondents said they disagree with the removal, with the most common concern being suppression of free speech. Students took to social media in droves to protest the decision in the days following the initial email. 276 alumni have signed an open letter to admin condemning the decision.

Math junior Alejandro Lizardi, who The Mercury spoke with last month about his rock painting efforts, disagreed with the removal.

“Even though I was the one painting the majority of Israeli messages, it’s ridiculous,” Lizardi said.

On Nov. 21, a group of students painted several small stones with the Palestinian and transgender flags’ colors and scattered them where the Spirit Rocks used to stand. Audrey Neal, an ATEC junior, said there was a tradition of painting the rocks for Transgender Day of Remembrance, and that the designs were chosen to send a striking but minimally disruptive message. Palestinian flag colors were included because students felt UTD opposed pro-Palestine viewpoints. Groundskeepers removed these rocks and washed away the “CENSORED” message Belford and Spadaro had drawn on the pavement the next day.

“To wake up to the news [the rocks] had been removed was distasteful, to say the least,” Neal said.

At the Nov. 28 meeting of SG, resolution S.R. 2023-08 was passed, calling for the Spirit Rocks’ restoration and requesting that UTD communicate with student leadership before making major decisions on student expression. In addition, Edupuganti suggested a sticker wall as a new venue for student speech.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which challenges First Amendment violations on college campuses, said the rocks’s removal may be unconstitutional. Graham Piro, a program officer with FIRE, said this depends on what type of speech was originally allowed on the Spirit Rocks. Without further clarification from admin, this standard is unclear, given UTD has tolerated a variety of political messaging on the rocks since their establishment.

“If [UTD] is closing the forum because it now disapproves of specific political expression, that could be viewpoint discrimination, a potential violation of a state university’s First Amendment obligations,” Piro said.

Piro said that several other campuses have removed walls, rocks, and other landmarks used for student speech in recent years. Additionally, other universities’ administrations have censored student speech pertaining to Israel and Palestine, for example, by dissolving SJP chapters.

“In all these instances, we urge universities to be mindful of their obligations to uphold student expressive rights,” Piro said.

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