Rutgers: Anti-immigrant graffiti on campus falls under freedom of speech
Carlos Fernandez emigrated to the U.S. from Costa Rica 28 years ago. He expects his daughter to attend Rutgers in the next few years, but is disappointed that she may be exposed to harmful dialogue targeting her ethnic background as a Latina on campus.
On Tuesday, pro-Donald Trump and anti-immigrant phrases were written on sidewalks on the Livingston and College Avenue campuses, including “Viva la deportation,” “Make America Great Again,” and “Deport force coming.”
Jeffrey Tolvin, University spokesperson, said the chalk messages are not under criminal investigation and called the messages an issue of free speech.
“Students are encouraged to express their opinion in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” Tolvin said.
Fernandez said the messages represent hurtful rhetoric, not just to him as an immigrant, but to the diverse Rutgers community as a whole.
“It’s hurtful because it presumes that immigrants are a problem in this country, and they contribute every day throughout the United States as doctors and educators. It’s disappointing,” he said.
He said Rutgers values the inclusion of its diverse population, and the messages do not speak well of building inclusive communities built on respect and tolerance.
Fernandez, who is the director of the Center for Latino Arts and Culture (CLAC), said he believes the rhetoric of certain presidential candidates endorses hateful speech on this campus.
“We’re all supportive of free speech, and that’s important at Rutgers too, but there’s a tone and rhetoric that becomes hateful speech,” he said. “Just reproducing the slogan of the election doesn’t contribute to productive dialogue.”
Fernandez said while he agrees students should be encouraged to be in an environment of free speech, it’s a privilege.
“We should encourage students to think critically about how they use their speech and what kind of speech they bring to our community so that it’s not name calling and hurtful speech,” he said.
Fernandez said the fact that people behind the marked messages did so under the cover of the night as well as anonymously show they are not approaching their right of free speech as an opportunity to engage productively.
Laila Abbas, School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, saw the chalk messages and posted a picture of it to the Rutgers Class of 2020 Facebook group.
She said she did not post the picture to the Facebook page intending to persuade students to vote a certain way.
“They are words specifically intended to hurt, to create fear and to divide,” she said.
Abbas said she finds it heinous that she has peers, both anonymous and not, who openly celebrate the horrors that America’s immigrants face, particularly across an ethnically diverse campus.
“I consider is disturbing that not finding any pleasure in families being forcibly separated is considered controversial, not to mention political,” she said.
Abbas urges everyone to research the conditions of the nation’s immigration detention centers and to “find some empathy.”
In response to the chalkings, Fernandez said the CLAC decided to hold an emergency community gathering Tuesday night.
The community gathering was held at the CLAC on College Avenue as a safe space, allowing students to discuss the public display of anti-immigration prejudice found throughout the Rutgers campus.
“Yesterday we had students share their concerns and some of our students who are immigrants, who are becoming professionals, and that their contributions are not valued by people who write these messages,” Fernandez said.
He said students need to be heard and need to be respected, so the group is working on ways to not only build a productive dialogue with the community.
Fernandez said the CLAC is working to build the dialogue along with increasing awareness and understandings about the contributions Latinos give to the United States.
“The anti-immigrant rhetoric are things we are concerned about, but even in that environment, we are continuing to do our work,” Fernandez said. “It makes it more important and necessary.”
There are a number of things said publicly about immigrants and undocumented individuals in communities that are completely false, he said.
“The prejudice that is being expressed and the myths of undocumented people, specifically, being criminals is simply not true. More importantly, they’re a part of our community,” he said.
Fernandez said there are several hundred undocumented students at Rutgers actively pursuing college degrees, and the community should be ready to support them and welcome them into the University.
“They’re in our classrooms,” he said. “We need to be ready to embrace them and support them.”
Sophie Nieto-Munoz is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies and Italian. She is an associate news editor for The Daily Targum. You can find her on Twitter @snietomunoz for more.