Nov 21, 2002 LA Times Op Ed

Attention must be paid. And it will be, if the chalkers have anything to say about it.

That's the message coming from college and university campuses across the country these days, where a controversial form of political protest is stirring up a rumpus.

The practice, in which students use colored chalk to scrawl often deliberately lewd -- though purportedly consciousness-raising -- slogans and drawings on campus walkways, came under fire at Wesleyan University last month.

College President Douglas J. Bennet, who previously had tolerated fairly racy scribble on his sidewalks, declared a moratorium on chalking after he saw pornographic references to specific faculty members.

Predictably, many students and professors have protested the ban, while others have applauded it as long overdue.

In the last few years, similar debates have arisen on other campuses, including USC, UC Berkeley, Swarthmore and Williams, but most administrators haven't forbidden the practice. They should.

Chalkers defend their pranks by invoking their right to free expression.

This is a bogus claim, primarily because chalking doesn't necessarily qualify as protected speech but also because even if it did, chalkers couldn't defend it as such for the simple reason that they don't really believe in free speech.

An argument made recently in a chalking case in Santa Cruz may help explain why chalking isn't always protected speech. City Atty. John G. Barisone argued that police did not violate a homeless woman's right to free speech when they arrested her for chalking a sidewalk. According to California case law, he said, regulating speech in public venues doesn't violate the 1st Amendment if the restriction is based on the method of expression rather than the content and if alternative methods of expression are available.

In the Santa Cruz case, both conditions were satisfied, and the woman was convicted of defacing public property.

Apply this standard to campus chalkings and 1st Amendment objections likewise disappear.

The content of what is being expressed needn't be an issue; sensible objections to campus chalking can be made on purely aesthetic grounds. Chalking is graffiti, it's ugly, and it should be illegal on campus for the same reason that it's illegal in most other places. It diminishes quality of life, and if everyone did it, college idylls would become as squalid as subway tunnels.

Certainly, alternative methods of expression are available on campus. Students can publish their views in college newspapers. They can print pamphlets and hand them out at student unions or even on campus walkways. They need not deface college property.

By this reasonable definition, chalking isn't really protected speech at all.

But for argument's sake, let's say that the California standard is hogwash and that chalking should enjoy 1st Amendment protection.

If students want to make this case, they're going to have to accept one particularly inconvenient truth about free expression. It applies to everyone, not just your friends and co-conspirators.

Naturally, though, chalkers don't see it this way.

The same students who shriek loudest in defense of their right to deface sidewalks with intentionally offensive "speech" are usually those who campaign hardest for enforcing draconian politically correct "hate speech" codes.

They're also often the same people who pilfer entire print runs of conservative campus newspapers when those papers run objectionable commentaries.

Not exactly civil libertarians, are they? Nope, just the usual wilding packs of self-entitled, sophomoric pranksters falling back on high principles when it suits them.

It's time they get the spanking they deserve or start living up to what free speech really means.