Pitzer College maintains a free wall where students are invited to paint whatever they would like. A recent critique of white women who wear hoop earrings has attracted far more attention than most writing on the wall -- and the debate has escalated well beyond jewelry.
College officials have seen and are investigating written threats -- including some that could be read as death threats -- against the Latina students who wrote the critique on the wall. And Pitzer's president, Melvin L. Oliver, has issued an open letter condemning "a cycle of violent hate speech that threatens the safety and well-being of every member of our community."
The students, whose identities Pitzer declined to confirm, citing their privacy rights, are fearful for their safety, the college says. But others say Pitzer is unfairly blaming a conservative student newspaper for the students' problems.
Here is how the controversy has played out.
The line that was written on the wall was simple: "White girl, take off your hoops."
After that went up on the wall, students on an all-campus email asked for clarification about what it meant.
Two of the three Latina students who were involved wrote back in other all-campus email messages, in which they explained that they viewed white women wearing hoop earrings as engaging in cultural appropriation, which is when a privileged group adopts part of the culture of an oppressed group and in so doing erases the role of the oppressed group.
As one of the students wrote, "If you didn’t create the culture as a coping mechanism for marginalization, take off those hoops, if your feminism isn’t intersectional take off those hoops, if you try to wear mi cultura when the creators can no longer afford it, take off those hoops, if you are incapable of using a search engine and expect other people to educate you, take off those hoops, if you can’t pronounce my name or spell it … take off those hoops … I use 'those' instead of 'your' because hoops were never 'yours' to begin with."
The campus email exchanges were civil, even as some students disagreed with the call for white women to stop wearing hoop earrings.
Things changed when The Claremont Independent, a conservative student newspaper, wrote about the debate and the story quickly spread to the conservative blogosphere.
At that point, the three Latina students who responded to the all-campus emails started to receive hostile email messages, which the college believes are from people not connected to Pitzer or the other Claremont Colleges. Some of the messages college officials have reviewed appear to go beyond criticism, to harassment and threats, including a message with an individual pointing a gun.
At that point, Oliver posted his statement, with the headline "Hate Speech Is Not Free Speech."
College officials said his reference to hate speech was about the threats, not disagreement with the students who made the statement about hoop earrings.
Oliver wrote, "Coverage in a local publication of a recent posting on the free wall has ignited a cycle of violent hate speech that threatens the safety and well-being of every member of our community. Some students are experiencing harassment and death threats. As a place of higher education, we strongly cherish and defend intellectual curiosity, productive discourse and opposing views that may broaden our perspectives as global citizens. However, when speech resorts to hate, violence and threats, we will not tolerate these acts nor the perpetrators of these actions …. Every individual is entitled to freedom from fear and stigma, and with the respect of others to pursue a life of meaning and purpose. Pitzer College supports greater acceptance, not less."
An editorial in The Student Life, the student newspaper at Pomona College, another of the Claremont Colleges, criticized the Independent for drawing attention to the students who wrote on the wall.
The goal of journalism "can be to inform, expose, criticize -- anything in service of the audience," the editorial said. "But when the action directly results in harm to somebody else, especially the subject of the story -- especially when that subject is already enduring racism, sexism and/or other forms of oppression, which made their story relevant in the first place -- that article is doing work to harm someone."
Not everyone agrees with the criticism. One response posted to the Student Life website said, "If these students want to publicly engage in racist rhetoric, then they should expect to be publicly ridiculed for it. This is the same logic you would hold for anyone who isn't a progressive and you are only complaining about this because the purveyor of racism is on the left and the news source that exposed it has a conservative bent …. We can agree that the threats from third-party scum are a legitimate problem, but to insinuate that such threats should curb the journalistic pursuit of the Claremont Independent's writers is beyond the pale."