Case Study

Controversy over painted bridge at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Photo credit: Nikki Pederson/Minnesota Daily


Straddling the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus, the Washington Avenue Bridge has become a locus of annual controversy, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. Student groups gather every fall to paint the panels that line the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, an opportunity that the university’s College Republicans took in 2016, devoting a panel to the phrase “Build the Wall” and another to the phrase “Trump Pence 2016.” Within 24 hours, the group’s panels were graffitied over with multiple tags, and the only legible message was “Stop White Supremacy,” rendered in gold. The next day, the university’s president, Eric W. Kaler, sent a campus-wide email defending the College Republicans’ right to voice their opinion, arguing that “Build the Wall” must be protected as “free, political speech,” and encouraging those who found it distasteful to counter it by speaking out in response. That afternoon, nearly 150 students did just that, gathering on the bridge in protest. A coalition of academic departments released a statement saying that the university’s response was inadequate given the “inherent violence” within this slogan. In the years since, the panels on the Washington Avenue Bridge have been a consistent flashpoint, the site of an annual battle among student groups with differing political and social ideologies.

PEN America Analysis

The controversy at the University of Minnesota is instructive because it highlights how campuses have become a proxy for national political and social conflicts in which speech has taken on great significance and in which neither side is willing to cede an inch—or a mural—to the other. To one camp, the paint wars were just another example of how college campuses had become inhospitable to free speech, with left-leaning populations quick to censor conservative ideas. On the other side were students and faculty who, amid a pitched presidential campaign marked by charges of sexism, racism, and xenophobia, were acutely sensitive to bigoted overtones in messages appearing on campus. While PEN America agrees with President Kaler’s suggestion to counter offensive speech with more speech rather than with vandalism, his statement failed to adequately address the concerns of students and faculty about the anti-immigrant and discriminatory overtones of the messages. This is a case where a robust defense of free speech should have been accompanied by an acknowledgement of these feelings and a forceful assertion of the university’s values of inclusion.

Further Reading

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