Students propose reinstallment of Free Expression Wall

Karah Kemmerly

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The Free Expression Wall, a place on campus for students to publicly voice their thoughts, may soon be reinstalled at Whitman College after being removed in 2007 because of student complaints. Junior Katie Radosevic and sophomores Hannah Siano and William Newman-Wise submitted a proposal on November 5 and then again on November 15 to President Bridges to get this space back on campus.

In their proposal, the students explained the three goals they want to achieve by reinstalling the Free Expression Wall. The first is “to make students more visible on campus”, the second is “to provide a free space for student expressions”, and the last is “to inspire fruitful conversations if something offensive, shocking or controversial is shared.”

This controversy, however, has proven problematic in the past.

The first iteration of a Freedom of Expression Wall was installed on the side of Olin Hall in the fall of 2006 in preparation for the Symposium on Race Relations and Community. In August 2007, the wall was taken down.

According to a Pioneer article written by Andrea Miller in 2007, there was some confusion among students as to the causes of the wall’s dismantling. Many believed that the wall was taken down to beautify the campus for an upcoming August Visitor’s Day. In fact, the wall was removed because a group of students went to the physical plant and requested its removal.

Justin Daigneault ’09, the resident director of Jewett Hall, was a student when the original wall was removed. He expressed support for the reinstallment of the wall, but warned that students would have to be cautious.

“I think freedom of expression should be allowed room anywhere we can find on campus, but we also need to make sure it is still a safe space for all individuals on campus,” said Daigneault.

In the proposal for the wall, Radosevic, Siano and Newman-Wise addressed the issue of students taking offense to written content on the wall in their two rules regarding its reinstallment.

The first rule is that the wall will not be taken down under any circumstances; the second that if a student is offended by another student’s words or artwork, the offended student should simply paint or write over the offensive statement.

Their proposal makes clear that in order to deal with offensive or shocking statements, the Whitman community should discuss these issues, not destroy the medium on which they were expressed.

The proposal states that “when an offensive comment is written, we as a community can come together to discuss the problem. If it is written, someone is thinking it, we as a community need to address those thoughts.”

Eventually, for the wall to be reinstalled, the students behind this project will also have to meet with the physical plant, but Newman-Wise believes the administration has little ground to ultimately reject the proposal.

“It’s not that students won’t write provocative things: I want them to do so. The student body can handle it,” said Newman-Wise.

Radosevic is interested to see what kinds of controversial issues will come up after the wall is installed.

“I’m intrigued by the idea of shock. There’s not a lot of conflict on campus, yet there are conflicting viewpoints,” she said.

Radosevic is glad to see these issues combined with creativity.

“Combining these hard subjects with art will be a great way to focus more on the issues. I know that when I’m frustrated, I like to finger paint. And even if students don’t know exactly how to say something, they are still interacting with their environment,” she said.

Siano hopes to see more dialogue among students.

“We’re giving students a medium for creativity. And this wall can start more conversations on campus about things which students are passionate about,” she said.

Radosevic, Siano and Newman-Wise are also hoping to see the Whitman landscape change after the wall is installed.

“There isn’t a lot of student artwork around campus. The wall should be an easy way to make students visible on campus,” said Newman-Wise.

He also said he would like to see the campus “roughed up.”

“Everything is so unified here. This wall would be a shocking thing,” Siano said in agreement.

Overall, the group is optimistic about their project proposal.

“We’ve had good responses from students so far. People seem interested. And I think it can only benefit Whitman College,” said Siano.

President Bridges responded to the proposal and the students met with Dean of Students Chuck Cleveland and Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey on November 30 to further discuss the proposal. Cleveland believes that overall it was a positive meeting.

Harvey sees a benefit to having the wall on campus.

“I agreed with the students that such a wall could serve as a great opportunity for students to creatively express themselves, both through art and the expression of ideas. It has the potential to both share such creativity more visibly and to encourage positive discussion of important ideas,” he says.

He does worry that the wall could be offensive to some people, but he’s not concerned about the students.

“It could offend other members of the broader community. It is important to remember that the college serves as a park-like environment for the Walla Walla community and that many elementary-aged children visit campus to see the art, tour the grounds, attend workshops or special programs such as planetarium shows,” Harvey said.

The students have a few changes to make to their proposal, but despite the potential controversy, Harvey believes that the proposal is moving forward and thinks it could be established next semester.

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