Free Speech or Inciting Violence?

A University of Wisconsin student’s provocative clothing line blasts police brutality, and a conservative state lawmaker seeks “accountability.”

September 22, 2017
 
Nolan Ferlic / The Badger Herald

“Fuck the police, they the biggest gang in AmeriKKKa.”

Eneale Pickett knows he’s being provocative with statements like the one above, which is to be featured on sweatshirts for his new collection of clothing set to be released today. And while he’s drawn ire from conservatives, the University of Wisconsin at Madison junior has said he’s trying to spark larger conversations.

"The goal of my line is never to change anyone's mind, but my job is to make you think about these things," Pickett told the local NBC station. In 2016 he found himself the center of controversy -- which escalated to death threats -- after he released a hoodie with the message “All White People Are Racist” written across the front.

Pickett’s soon-to-be-released collection and the 2016 collection were both from his clothing business, Insert Apparel, and both addressed racism and police brutality.

One of the 2016 pieces, for example, featured the phrase “If I encounter another cop with a God complex I’m going to have to show the world they are human.”

The 2017 collection also includes a promotional video that shows a decapitated pig’s head wearing a police officer’s hat, being held by a man also holding a bloody knife.

"Nobody really listens until you take it to the extreme," Pickett said.

Indeed, some have found his message extreme -- and inappropriate. In particular, a conservative state senator has called for the university to hold Pickett and the students in the video "accountable."

"It's vile, antipolice. Unbelievable, quite frankly, when I first saw it," State Senator Stephen Nass told the local ABC station.

Stories critical of the clothing line have circulated among conservative news sites, including the College Fix, Campus Reform and National Review, although none advocated for university action against Pickett. Neither Pickett nor Nass responded to requests for comment.

"Is this free speech? This is not free speech when you're inciting violence," said Nass, who has said the police and the Wisconsin Department of Justice should investigate the situation.

While UW Madison criticized Pickett’s clothing collection, it also said that it was protected by the First Amendment. It took the same position when his 2016 line gained attention.

“UW Madison strives to provide a welcoming and inclusive campus environment, while allowing everyone to share ideas and political views in exercise of their free speech rights,” a spokesman, John Lucas, said in a statement. “However, the university strongly condemns the glorification of violence such as that contained in the promotion of a student-produced clothing line.”

The clothing line is a private business activity, the statement said, and is unrelated to Pickett being a student.

Lucas added in an email to Inside Higher Ed that the university didn’t have a direct response to Nass's call for action, but that the University of Wisconsin System’s student code of conduct does not prohibit political speech.

The university did push back when a link to the promotional video was uploaded on a university file-sharing service, which Lucas said was due to its promotion of a noncampus commercial venture, which violates university IT policies. The link was taken off the file-sharing site.

Nass has been an outspoken critic of UW Madison before, threatening state funding to the institution because of a class called The Problem With Whiteness and a university program, Men’s Project, that explores problems related to masculinity.

"I have every right to do this. This is free speech," Pickett told local newspaper The Capital Times. "This is the same senator that supports free speech. But he only supports free speech when it comes to white supremacy."

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