They hung up a banner. Someone took it down. The university held a town hall.
To tell all sides of the story, the Independent Collegian interviewed participants to write this comprehensive timeline.
In pop culture, President Trump’s portrait has gained the pointed-white hood infamously donned by the Ku Klux Klan.
After he initially failed to publicly condemn a group of white-supremacists at a protest that left one dead in Charlottesville, Va. over the summer, the New Yorker published a cover of the president blowing into a Klan hood posed as a sail.
Before that, the Economist illustrated Trump speaking into a white bullhorn with two holes cut out of the front for eyes—another ode to the hate group.
Last week, the UT College Democrats took their turn to display the president in the same compromising light after hanging a banner in the Student Union emblazoned with an image of Trump in the ever-so-familiar white hood, coupled with a message urging students to join their organization.
But, what was originally intended to start a conversation surrounding alleged “racism of the president,” as President of the College Democrats Sydney Jones said, turned into a campus-wide argument surrounding free speech, adding UT to the list of colleges participating in a national discourse on First Amendment protections.
The College Democrats’ office is a short walk away from where the banner hung.
Their work space is covered in yard signs promoting Democratic candidates and a large “Bernie” [Sanders] sticker is posted on the filing cabinet.
During an interview, communications director Alexander Seifert, Jones and member Nick Horsman sat at a conference table just outside the office door, the political signs visible in the background.
Addressing where the idea for the banner originated, Seifert made it clear: “This was a discussion we had about how we were going to go about recruiting more members.”
Because it's “difficult to get students involved, we started talking about a more aggressive recruitment tactic and maybe being slightly more controversial to get more people interested in the organization,” Seifert said.
“[We want people to know] what our views on the president are.”
“Based on his statements, his policies, the appointment he’s made, the endorsements he’s received that he hasn’t tried to denounce” the group felt justified associating Trump with “a racist terrorist organization in the U.S.”
Since conventional methods of recruiting members through flyers is no longer effective, the group decided to turn towards something attention grabbing, something to start a conversation, fourth-year political science major Connor Kelley said.
According to the group, the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership approved their banner. After a dialogue with the OSIL, the Office of Conduct, the administration and a unanimous vote, the final decision was made.
The banner placed in the Student Union on Tuesday afternoon was gone by Wednesday. However, the College Democrats decided not to replace the banner since everyone was already talking about it, membership director Kelley said.
The administrators explained why they allowed the banner to go up in the first place.
“We are here to [allow you to] grow to be a true professional and in order to do that, we have to engage in some type of civil discourse,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Phillip “Flapp” Cockrell days after the banner was hung.
While the banner did personally offend him, Cockrell said that as a practitioner and an academician, his role is to educate and create spaces for students to share their ideas, opinions and experiences, regardless of how he feels.
“People are going to have different opinions, but this is an educational institution and so we have to create those spaces where people can have dialogue and if we don't do it as an educational institution, then, we're failing our students,” Cockrell said.
The Republican Rebuttal
Chairman of College of Republicans, Shane Logan, saw the banner during afternoon rush hour. While most students were distracted by their phones, Logan said he was shocked and hurt.
"I have no problem with them expressing their viewpoints, but I also have a viewpoint to say that's wrong, and I don't agree with it," third-year sales and finance major, Logan said.
“When you put out labels saying someone is a white supremacist, that does not encourage debates, that shuts down debate,” Logan said. “You are assassinating their character, and that does nothing for anyone, and that's what that banner did whether we like it or not.”
To Logan, the hurt stemmed from connecting the Republican Party and individuals who consider themselves conservative with the Ku Klux Klan.
“We wanted to work with the College of Democrats, but on two separate occasions, including with this banner, they decided [to] basically give us the middle finger," Logan said.
Sharing similar feelings of shock, Vice-Chairman of College of Republicans Kyle Zapadka said he believes the motive behind placing that banner was to stoke the flames and stir the pot.
"This [act] is intrinsically divisive,” second-year finance major Zapadka said. “This is something that is meant to separate us and not bring us together."
For him, this image hits especially close to home.
White supremacists dragged his Polish grandfather and his family out of their home and attacked them in Nazi Germany.
The College Republicans are not racist, Zapadka said and invited students to engage in an open dialogue over coffee.
Even though the College Republicans disagree with the banner, they still encourage free speech and believe the banner should have stayed up.
"They put up walls instead of bridges. We wanted bridges and not walls,” Zapadka said.
A day after the banner was displayed and subsequently torn down, President Sharon Gaber sent an email to the UT community.
“I want to address a banner that was put up yesterday in the Thompson Student Union that I personally find offensive,” Gaber wrote. “I've heard from several other members of our community as well, across the political spectrum, who feel the same way.”
“I have been asked why we didn't remove the banner and why we let it go up in the first place,” Gaber continued. “The University of Toledo respects the First Amendment rights of our students, faculty and staff. While we may not always agree with the way individuals or organizations choose to express their views, we must respect their freedom to do so.”
In her email, President Gaber encouraged students to attend a town hall meeting arranged for Thursday to discuss freedom of speech.
The Town Hall
A group of over 100 students and community members discussed free speech in the Lancelot Thompson Auditorium.
Professor and First Amendment scholar Sam Nelson moderated the forum.
Before public comment, Nelson laid out the basics of free speech reminding attendees that “criticism of political leaders [is] at the very core of the meaning of the First Amendment.”
Andy Taylor, a fourth-year exercise science major, thanked the College Democrats for providing the catalyst to hold the public forum.
“However,” Taylor said, “if your goal was to prompt this discussion, there are different...ways you could have gone about it.”
“This type of discourse is far more destructive than it is helpful for the student body. You cannot combat extremist rhetoric with extremist imagery.”
Kelley, who at this point had only responded to critics via Twitter, took the forum as an opportunity to defend the group’s decision in a more formal setting.
Explaining that because “political norms have changed” in the United States, the group felt comfortable using this sort of medium to express the “overt racism by the president of the United States.”
Elizabeth Layhew, a second-year paralegal studies major, responded to those like Kelley, who “decided this action was OK.”
“I want campus to be an inclusive place,” Layhew said. “Your banner has done just the opposite. Your banner and your individual right to freely speak has spoken for an entire group of people who as a whole do not support this message.”
For some students, the banner was gratifying; it addressed the discomfort of being black in Trump’s America.
“Donald Trump and his policies treat me like a ‘n-word,’” said community member and activist Julian Mack. “I’m proud of the College Democrats for standing up and making that clear for everybody who walks in this Student Union.”
Political science major Jared Duke echoed Mack’s sentiment.
“[The College Democrats] gave us a voice…” Time and time again we’ve said this “how our president treats us.”
Jones, president of the Democrats, shared the same views.
“I know that this picture upset a lot of people,” Jones said. “As a black girl on a predominantly white campus, I’m uncomfortable every day. So, if this image makes people uncomfortable for one day, but it gives us the platform to discuss the problems, then let’s all get uncomfortable and have this conversation.”