Pilot Editorial

Thursday, September 26, 2002

Chalk talks and freedom of speech

A glittering black-tie crowd was dining in the ballroom, waiting to hear an impassioned speech by a foreign dignitary, pleading for personal freedoms and democracy for people who are denied it.

This same day that the American Heritage Lecture Series was going on at Buena Vista University - the most ambitious effort dedicated to collecting thought on the subject of American freedoms - we happened to grab a student newspaper someone left behind in the same building.

On the front page was a story about a President's Council discussion on forming a policy to deal with students using sidewalk chalk to express their opinions.

We're not sure it is intended to be an issue of free speech, but the story indicates that this is certainly the concern of some on campus.

A twinge of irony might strike one while sitting and reading of a possible policy on one form of expression, next door to where the same university is sponsoring a gala lecture dedicated to freedom.

We first noticed BVU's tendency toward chalk talk several years ago. When controversial presidential candidate Pat Buchanan came to campus, students for and against his views chalked their opinions all over the sidewalk he would cross to reach his stage.

Ever since, it seems to have become a medium to promote student events and express opinions on issues ranging from campus to international scope.

In our business, we are particularly attuned to the absolute protection of freedom of speech, and compared to other forms of graffiti, theirs seems to be a fairly safe, sane - and colorful - way to communicate.

Yet it is easy to see the administration's issues with chalk talk as well. Children use those sidewalks as well as college students. Having foul language, defamatory messages or hate speech would reflect badly on the university, as well as expose it to some practical liability. On a nuts-and-bolts level, custodians need to know what should be cleaned off, and when.

A policy need not be a form of censorship. It seems that there could be a chance for student government to grab the issue as its own, and help to write a policy that works to protect free expression rather than confine it. The public has rights as well, and the marketplace of ideas does not guarantee a person the right to inflict vulgar language, sexism, racist or the like on others. We understand there have been a few problems with the chalk in the past. Students can help protect their own right to free expression by fostering an understanding of this.

The only difficult issue becomes one of definition. In free speech, who gets to decide what is appropriate and what is not? The university administration or trustees? City government or its police? We're not sure the President's Council should double as a decency patrol.

There is no sure answer here, but if the policy is aimed at students, it makes sense that students play a major role in formulating it.

We've come to enjoy the colorful and often creative messages encountered on the BVU walks from time to time, and they are much preferable to messy message posts so common to other campuses. It would be a shame to curtail such a tradition.

If any policy is needed at all, we would hope for one that largely endorses free expression, and limits only unreasonable abuses.

The nice thing about chalk talk, every rain sweeps away the debates and every sunny day that follows creates an opportunity for fresh thought...

Tuition Hikes

On the subject of higher education, it is a harsh pill to swallow to see tuition rising by 20 percent at the Iowa state universities this season, with the prospects of another 20 percent next year.

The state legislature, reeling from budget woes, has cut support to the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, University of Northern Iowa and the two schools for blind and deaf children from $723 million three years ago to $599 million this year. Tuition increases are inevitable in this scenario. There is some talk of enrollment caps for the first time we can remember.

It's dangerous business.

Iowans have prospered under affordable, accessible state universities. Along with the community colleges and the private schools that have worked for substantial financial aid, it has been a network under which almost any family, almost any young person, can aspire to a high quality education in their home state.

Raising tuition by 40 percent in two years would start to price some students out of that dream.

The Des Moines Register recently pointed out that while Iowa higher education costs would still not be high compared to many other universities in the nation, family per capita income in Iowa is also low. Well said.

We have lamented Iowa's inability to hang on to its bright young people. Allowing educational quality at its most visible campuses to erode, and tuition burdens to skyrocket, isn't any way to correct that problem.