Last week’s defacement of Casey Schulman’s Beta Bridge memorial was an irresponsible exercise of free speech
Messages painted on Beta Bridge rarely last more than a few days. Most items are meant to be temporary. Students who kneel by the bridge, brushes in hand, to advertise an event or wish a friend happy birthday, know their words will soon be painted over. This impermanence is part of the bridge’s appeal as a communal sounding board. Its structure is fixed, but its surface is always changing.
Occasionally, a message painted on the bridge will endure. This was the case for a tribute to Casey Schulman, a fourth-year student who died Dec. 1, 2012 while on Semester at Sea. The words “Shine On Casey” appeared in early December and remained plastered on the bridge’s east side for months. Schulman’s tragic death—in a boating accident in Roseau, Dominica—shook the University community. Beta Bridge patrons resisted repainting, trading the colorful buzz of expression for the solemnity of remembrance.
Last Monday the memorial got an unwelcome makeover. Someone, armed with black spray paint, scrawled on the dedication: “If she weren’t white, wealthy, popular, etc….would this still be here?” The anonymous painter wrote the message directly over the sun illustrated in the “Shine On” memorial. The (possibly unintended) irony is fitting. The act does not suggest a sunny sensibility on the part of its executor, nor was the move an enlightened one.
The University prizes free expression, and rightly so. Anonymity, especially, can be liberating. Some things simply ought to be said, and anonymity provides needed protection for those who wish to speak without facing repercussions. But last week’s instance of vandalism is not an example of an idea in dire need of expression. The incident shows students the dark side of free speech.
The vandal’s motives remain murky. The message’s disrespectful placement on a deceased student’s memorial shows the expression was not a good-faith attempt to begin a conversation about, say, the role race or class plays in the University’s student social hierarchy. Its content was inappropriate to its context. A hasty missive, unsigned, is not a productive way to express misgivings or grievances. And such grievances, in finding Schulman as their object, were clearly misdirected. The message was a callous attempt to provoke and inflame.
As students, we are the guardians of free speech at the University. We have to decide how we want to speak to each other. Candid dialogue is crucial if we want to maintain our community’s strength.
Last week’s intrusive addition to Schulman’s memorial is a lesson in how not to exercise free expression. A discussion about how race and class affect the University’s student population could be fruitful, but the memorial’s defacement aborts rather than sparks any such conversation. The act of vandalism provides no chance for dialogue. And it fails to respect the bridge as a space for everyone’s words by criticizing Schulman’s dedication rather than painting over it with another message. The vandal’s question suggests that the dedication’s fixity is unwarranted. If this is the case, why couldn’t the anonymous spray-painter think of anything more important to replace the “Shine On” message with?
The message in black, unlike the memorial it defaced, remained on the bridge for just a few hours. By the afternoon, the bridge’s east side was painted entirely white.
Bridges can be repainted, but what is said cannot be unsaid. Free expression entails responsibility. Last Monday’s disappointing display suggests dysfunction in how the University community exercises free speech. Beta Bridge’s paint-smeared surface will illustrate student life until the semester’s end. On both sides of the bridge, however, we hope honest dialogue will replace anonymous anger.