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UT Dallas removes free speech rock display, raising censorship concerns

Spirit rocks removed after students paint ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘USA Stands with Israel’

University of Texas at Dallas leaders’ recent decision to remove popular free speech campus spirit rocks after students painted a series of pro-Palestine and pro-Israel slogans on them has prompted censorship concerns.

The three boulders, installed in 2008, were initially designed to tout “event announcements, words of support and congratulations, welcome notes or creative endeavors,” the university’s website states.

But over the years they have also been painted with politically charged messages over the years, such as “Black Lives Matter.”

They were removed in late November after students used the rocks for statements such as “We are winning” in solidarity with Israel and “End the occupation” in support of Palestinians.

Some argued the decision was based in part on safety concerns.

“The rocks were not a censor-less domain and needed to be approved by the university,” said Steve Hodo, a retired UT Dallas professor who spoke to The College Fix in a recent telephone interview about the rocks’ historical perspective.

“They may have not removed the rocks because they sided with any political agenda but because they wanted to remove the chance of violence,” he said.

The university’s media relations team did not respond to requests from The College Fix seeking comment.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression sent a letter to administrators criticizing the removal and calling it viewpoint discrimination.

“Students have used the rocks for political expression, and the university has permitted this use, over the course of their existence. Removing this forum now over objections to students’ political viewpoints about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict constitutes impermissible viewpoint discrimination,” FIRE wrote.

Messages such as “Vote blue,” “Free Iran” and “Black Lives Matter” never prompted their removal, according to FIRE’s Dec. 1 memo.

“By providing the rocks for students’ political (and other) messages, UT Dallas created, at the very least, a limited public forum for student speech,” the memo stated.

“Allowing the rocks’ use for political expression does not prevent UT Dallas from imposing reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions. But because UT Dallas has both in policy and practice continuously held open the rocks for the purpose of student expression, including political speech, it cannot now limit that speech—or cut it off entirely—because it disfavors some of the views expressed,” it stated.

The controversy began in mid-October. The UT Dallas student newspaper, the Mercury, published photos of the rocks, reporting they were painted over 11 times with alternating between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israel displays over the course of three days.

The University’s Division of Student Affairs’ statement announcing their removal argued they were only meant for, and have primarily been used, for promoting school activities and to grow school spirit over the years.

“For several weeks, messages on the rocks have been inconsistent with their original purpose and guidelines. After careful consideration, the rocks have been removed,” the university stated.

“The spirit rocks were not intended to be a display for extended political discourse, and because painted messages have been negatively impacting people on and off campus, our best solution was to remove them.”

In response, many student activists put aside political differences and argued the move amounted to censorship.

A social media poll showed that 92 percent of the 1,532 students who responded disagreed with the removal, according to the Mercury.

“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 campus,” UT Dallas Student Government President Srivani Edupugant reportedly said.

No violence, attacks or aggressive actions associated with the rocks have been reported.

In a message from President Richard Benson, he wrote on Oct. 16, prior to the spirit rocks’ removal, that students “are conversing about their differences; they are gathering donations and peacefully protesting; they are shaking hands. There have been no reports of violence, nor have any events been interrupted.”

MORE: Police escort Jewish students from ASU meeting after rocks thrown

IMAGE: Mercury screenshot

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Josiah Sullivan is a student at Clemson University majoring in political science. He spoke at the 2022, 2023 South Carolina Life Conference and has made appearances on the Palmetto Family podcast and at the Palmetto Women's Center yearly gala. Josiah is on senior staff for The Tiger.