Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Bucciarelli: The University should reconsider its definition of free expression

In 2022, the facade of a two-story building at 57 Great Jones St. in Manhattan was coated over in white paint. The fresh paint job was done to cover up a localized and particularly dense web of graffiti art across the majority of the building. The significance? The building was once the studio of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a neo-expressionist graffiti artist and one of the greatest painters in American history. The graffiti, now silenced by an expanse of cream white, included many homages to the late artist and the big blue letters: LET US SPRAY.

Like at 57 Great Jones St., NU may be proving itself too haughty for certain types of expression. In his letter to the community, University President Michael Schill specifically distinguishes red spray paint on Israeli and American flags as vandalism. While it may seem a natural conclusion, I believe this sentiment is not something that can be definitively stated without careful consideration.

I propose that there is a sound and logical argument to the opposite effect: spraying red paint on a flag is not inherently illegal vandalism and should not be punished by Northwestern. While NU has the ability to regulate this speech as a private institution, spray painting of flags should be recognized as allowable, as are other methods of speech.

While it is generally agreed upon that a flag pitched on a field (unauthorized but also not interrupting anything) is a fine statement of opinion, this seems not the case for some other forms of expression. I argue that spray paint on a flag (unauthorized but also not interrupting anything) is also a fine statement of opinion. This is because, crucially, the spray paint leaves the flag in place. It does not remove it and does not conceal its message. It simply simultaneously presents a counter-argument against the flag, which itself remains symbolic as originally intended.

This situation can be looked at by considering the perspective of an onlooker. This person would reasonably deduce that a flag has been placed in the ground by one party and paint has been sprayed on it by another. In this situation, the onlooker is presented with both sides of a critical issue through a single article of speech, a flag. This is a beautiful — even poetic — conversation. Free speech and debate rely on symbolic conversations like this. So why is the spray paint considered vandalism while the flag is allowable?

It is not difficult to understand why the University chose this approach to deal with red spray paint on flags, even though it may be misguided. On one hand, flags are powerful and prideful symbols which have represented both benevolent and malevolent causes over history. On the other hand, spray paint is commonly associated with criminals, and the color red has an array of negative connotations, such as the red-room in “Jane Eyre.” Like any good academic, NU should actively identify its own biases and adjust for them when making important judgments.

Removing individual items of contention does not solve the social issues that these items represent, unfortunate as that may be. Resolving persistent global problems requires much more than an eraser. If you just try to erase, it can make the issue worse.

NU has directly stated that various forms of expression like protesting get in the way of classes and learning. On the contrary, I argue that engaging in these forms of expression is itself learning. To remove the paint but leave the flag, or vice versa, is to suppress conversation. By doing so, it suppresses learning.

Seeing questions asked and opinions expressed makes me proud of our school community. Whether, after further consideration, these expressions are determined to be right or wrong — if a conclusion can even be made — they should valued regardless.

As a university, we have a choice to make. We can either prohibit all expression we broadly deem inappropriate, or we can let the flags and the paint remain, letting the issues solve themselves in a community that I know is more than capable of facilitating such discussions.

Nick Bucciarelli is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected] If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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