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Messages of Hate on Campus Wall Put Freedom of Expression to Test : Education: Pomona College structure is a forum for student views. But vitriolic scrawlings could bring it down.

December 26, 1995|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For two decades, students at Pomona College have shared their views with peers by writing them on Walker Wall, a free-standing structure on the northern edge of campus that has doubled as a barrier against flood waters and a canvas for student expression.

But a wave of racial and homophobic incidents could result in the fall of the campus symbol of freedom of speech.

In the past five years, hate-filled slogans such as "Geld Gays" have occasionally crept in among more traditional, benign messages such as "Have a Nice Day." The latest objectionable message appeared late this year: A noose with the words "Kill O.J." stirred such discontent on campus that college President Peter Stanley formed a committee, made up of staff and students, to figure out how to uphold the campus's liberal social standards while preserving freedom of speech.

Toni Clark, the school's associate dean of students, said that until the offensive messages began appearing sporadically about five years ago, the school had never had a reason to set guidelines restricting what went up on the wall, leaving students free to use it as a forum for whatever was on their minds.

And because there had been no complaints, the question of what constituted an offensive remark had not been raised. The unofficial understanding, however, was that off-color messages were inappropriate, Clark said.

"It had been a happy agreement," she said.

Administrators point out that the wall is open to students from the five other campuses in the Claremont College group--raising the possibility that some of the messages may have been written by invading pranksters or even Claremont residents who may have wandered onto the Pomona College campus.

Nevertheless, in the wake of what the administration sees as a disturbing trend, the 12-member committee that Stanley assembled is coming up with a list of recommendations about what to do with the wall, ranging from leaving things as they are--with no restrictions--to toppling the five-foot-tall, 200-foot-long structure.

"We are certainly open to [knocking down the wall]," said committee chairman and associate political professor David Menefee-Libey.

Built in the 1950s to hold back flood waters during rainy years, the wall evolved into the school's symbol of freedom of expression beginning in the mid-1970s, when activists began adorning it with messages of peace.

Since then, students and campus groups have used it to promote cultural pride or announce campus activities, painting the Mexican flag on it to celebrate Cinco De Mayo or scribbling dates to publicize AIDS Awareness Week.

Periodically, the wall is repainted solid white to erase old art and make room for new displays.

"It represents the campus' individuality," said Carlos Rodriguez, a 21-year-old senior history major. Rodriguez said he has seen displays that some students might have considered offensive, but was astonished that the committee would consider doing away with the wall.

Campus officials said the first of the "questionable displays" appeared five years ago, apparently sparked by one innocuous message.

Scrawled across the wall were the words "Asian American Students Now," written by students bent on urging the administration to fund a department for Asian American studies.

But someone altered that message to read: Asians Die Now.

Sometime later, another offensive message appeared: ---- Gender. That prompted a retaliatory remark from two students who wrote: Geld Gays.

When someone reported the students who wrote the anti-gay message to administrators, they were reprimanded and asked to attend a discussion with leaders of a student gay group, but were not disciplined further because they had not broken any school rule, officials said.

After that incident, a handful of other offensive messages--many apparently written under cover of night--prompted forums on multiculturalism and tolerance. The forums would lose momentum, however, as emotions died down.

But when the noose appeared shortly after the O.J. Simpson verdicts--a graffito that some people construed as condoning lynching of black men--some in the liberal college community had seen enough.

"It seemed to be the last straw," Clark said. "People were understandably upset."

Formed in early December, the committee--composed of six students, three faculty members and three administrators--quickly sent a questionnaire to the school's 1,400 students asking if and how the wall should be regulated. So far, the committee has received nearly 300 responses.

At one extreme, a few students favor doing away with the wall. At the other, most favor doing nothing at all, or instituting minor ground rules as regulatory measures. While no one in either group openly embraces the antagonistic slogans, students who oppose restrictions said they would rather err on the side of freedom of speech when considering the future of the wall.

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