Editorial: Stop vandalizing the Washington Avenue Bridge

UMN student groups Turning Point USA, College Republicans and the Minnesota Republic's panels on the Washington Avenue Bridge on Saturday morning. By Sunday morning, all nine panels were painted over.

Mike Hendrickson

UMN student groups Turning Point USA, College Republicans and the Minnesota Republic’s panels on the Washington Avenue Bridge on Saturday morning. By Sunday morning, all nine panels were painted over.

Daily Editorial Board

As a long-standing tradition of the University of Minnesota, student groups across campus are annually granted permission to paint the interior panels of the Washington Avenue Bridge to advertise their groups and publicize their respective group philosophies. However, for the past two years, conservative groups’ panels were defaced and vandalized. This year, panels of the College Republicans, Turning Point USA and the Minnesota Republic were defaced with various messages denouncing the original messages on the panels.

It’s imperative to note that the messages posited by the aforementioned groups are protected by the First Amendment. This has been ruled on by the Supreme Court as late as June of this year. In addition, they were fully compliant with University policy as they did not violate any code of conduct set out by Student Unions and Activities. Disagreement with the text of the statements simply does not merit removal. For this reason, vandalism and defacement of the panels on the bridge are not only against University policy, they also directly violate constitutional rights of members in groups like the College Republicans, Turning Point USA and the Minnesota Republic.

Beyond legal implications, we believe this sets a very dangerous precedent. The idea that we should bar a viewpoint on campus simply because we disagree is not only wrong, but is highly counterproductive. It creates an atmosphere where liberal and conservative philosophies alike would be subject to removal because they would always offend some group or another. We believe that the University environment should be a place where students, regardless of their backgrounds, can come together to generate a culture of discussion and dialogue with respectful disagreement. This is truly the definition of a safe space — where individuals are able to vehemently disagree on ideologies without having to worry about their physical safety. 

This does not at all mean that the College Republicans’ position is justified. The College Republicans’ identification as the “least popular minority on campus” severely underplays the genuine struggles of minorities not only on campus but around the country. Their claim is akin to an arsonist claiming victimization to a fire they created. This is incorrect and highly offensive to legitimate minority communities that have faced systematic oppression from the structural injustices propagated by the Trump administration. However, resorting to the decimation of those perspectives removes the opportunity to dismantle the flaws in the ideology. There must be a response — but, it must be civil and legal, challenging laws that allow these injustices to continue over illegal vandalism.

The freedoms and liberties of free speech are easy to enjoy when speaking from a position of privilege and authority. However, in no way does that mean that degrading the institutions that protect free speech helps those who are not privileged. Our priority on campus must be to empower true minorities and create avenues to generate discussion and listen to the perspectives of those who haven’t had the opportunity to speak out. It’s easy to shut down speech that contradicts and offends us — it’s far more challenging to address disagreements with civil discourse. That, however, is the correct path to take for our University in order to create a sustainably welcoming environment.