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A photo of three rocks, two of which read "people = people," one of which says "love them both" over the Palestinian flag.

UT Dallas’s spirit rocks, pictured here on Oct. 15, were removed from their space in front of the rec center in late November.

As campus protests heated up after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the retaliatory war that ensued, University of Texas at Dallas students on both sides of the conflict turned to a long-held campus tradition to express their views.

They took turns painting the campus’s three “spirit rocks”—large stones located prominently outside the institution’s recreation center—red, green, white and black like the Palestinian flag, or blue and white in support of Israel. Pro-Palestinian organizers added slogans such as “End Occupation” and “Free Palestine,” while pro-Israeli ones wrote, “USA stands with Israel.” Probably the most contentious phrase painted on the rocks was “Zionism=Nazism,” which appeared the evening of Oct. 14, according to images published by UTD’s student newspaper, The Mercury.

Fatimah Azeem, editor in chief of The Mercury, who closely monitored the dueling graffiti in the weeks following the attack, said the rocks became something of a flash point. Some students camped out to prevent their messages from being painted over, and arguments broke out among groups with opposing viewpoints, she said. But she viewed the friction as part of a genuine attempt by students to better understand one another’s positions.

“That messaging was peaceful, at the end of the day,” Azeem told Inside Higher Ed. “Students there were engaging in discourse, but it was peaceful. I thought that was really incredible.”

President Richard C. Benson apparently concurred, writing in an email to students on Oct. 16 that he was proud of their conduct: “I already knew we had wonderful students, but my pride in this diverse community has reached a new level. Our remarkable students, staff and faculty have gathered the best of themselves to engage with each other respectfully and civilly.”

So it came as something of a shock when administrators abruptly removed the rocks more than a month after students began adorning them with messages related to the Israel-Hamas war.

“For several weeks, messages on the rocks have been inconsistent with their original purpose and guidelines. After careful consideration, the rocks have been removed,” officials from the Division of Student Affairs wrote in an email to students on Nov. 20. “The spirit rocks were not intended to be a display for extended political discourse, and because painted messages have been negatively impacting people on and off campus, our best solution was to remove them.”

It is unclear if a specific message or painting prompted the decision. UT Dallas officials did not respond to requests for comment.

As students return from winter break, the rocks, first placed on campus in 2008, still haven’t been returned—despite significant student pushback, including several protests.

Free Expression Areas

UT Dallas’s spirit rocks are the latest casualty in the ongoing debate over what kind of speech should be allowed on college campuses regarding the Israel-Hamas war. Activists on each side have taken offense at language used by the other; most prominently, Israel supporters have argued that the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”—which has appeared on the sides of campus buildings across the U.S.—is inherently antisemitic in its apparent call for the dissolution of the Jewish state.

UT Dallas is not the only U.S. institution to set aside a certain area or campus landmark where students are permitted to graffiti their views—nor is it alone in struggling to manage the contentious speech now appearing in the venues designated for free expression.

In an email to students in October, Duke University vice president for student affairs Mary Pat McMahon reported that the university had received complaints about the phrase “from the river to the sea” appearing on the university’s “free expression bridge.” So Duke decided to cover the words.

“Because the phrase, ‘From the river to the sea …’ is understood by many in our community and beyond as a call for violence targeting the Jewish community, the specific phrase was painted over. At the same time, we are taking care to not alter other sentiments elsewhere on the bridge; these include images and words that advocate for Palestinian rights and call for Palestinian freedom,” McMahon wrote in the message, first reported by Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle.

The University of Connecticut considered moving its spirit rock to a less prominent place on campus or removing it altogether after pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students began painting the rocks, according to The Hartford Courant and UConn’s student newspaper, The Daily Campus. While most students followed the university’s guidelines, one painted a Star of David over an image of the Palestinian flag, breaking a rule against tagging over an existing message, the Courant reported. But in the end administrators decided to leave the rock in place.

Wayne State University’s long-established policy held that students couldn’t paint over a message on the campus spirit rock, located in the central quad, unless it had been up for at least 24 hours. But after activists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict broke that rule, administrators revised the policy so that now only registered student organizations can paint the rock—and they must reserve a time slot in advance, according to the university’s student paper.

Students’ Rights Violated?

Students—and free speech advocates—are still pushing for UT Dallas to re-establish access to its spirit rocks. In December, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech advocacy organization, wrote to UT Dallas president Benson asking the university to reinstate the rocks. As the site of other political messages—such as “Vote Blue,” “Free Iran” and “Black Lives Matter”—the rocks had become “a limited public forum for student speech,” the FIRE letter read, arguing that university officials could not then limit the messages to those they approved of.

“Doing so not only harms the environment for free speech on campus, teaches students an unfortunate lesson about how to react to speech with which one disagrees, but also constitutes impermissible state discrimination based on viewpoint,” the organization wrote.

FIRE also launched an email campaign this month, giving supporters a template to send to Benson to express their dismay at the rocks’ removal.

Graham Piro, a campus rights advocacy program officer at FIRE, said UT Dallas has not yet responded. Azeem also said university officials have not responded to the Mercury’s repeated requests for comment on the removal.

Students nearly universally want the rocks reinstated, Azeem said. The newspaper conducted a poll on its Instagram account, and more than 90 percent of respondents said the rocks should return. Students like having a place to express their opinions, she said, and they are willing to tolerate perspectives they disagree with in exchange for having that forum available.

“That was really the premier platform for public opinion, and displaying your opinion,” she said. There is no suitable replacement: “We have bulletin boards, you could put up fliers, but with bulletin boards you have to get pre-approval … There’s really nothing the same as those rocks.”

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