By William Melhado, The Texas Tribune
“A Texas university removed its unique public billboards after students used them to share thoughts on Gaza war” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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For years, three large lumpy rocks bedecked in bright paint announced events or bore symbolic messages at the University of Texas at Dallas — a cornerstone of campus life.
Sometimes the messages were political, “Vote Blue.” Sometimes not, “Welcome Scholars!”
But Monday morning students found the university uprooted their beloved boulders, known as the Spirit Rocks, overnight and replaced them with freshly planted trees.
The rocks’ removal came weeks after student groups took turns painting pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian messages on their surfaces in response to the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip.
The Oct. 7 terrorist attack, and ensuing assault on Gaza, has triggered intense debates over the decades-old conflict as many urge for a ceasefire. College campuses like UT Dallas have become a nexus of those debates and, in some cases, a test of students’ freedom of expression.
In the weeks since Hamas militants killed more than 1,200 people and took hundreds hostage, Israel has maintained an airstrike campaign on Gaza. The relentless assault resulted in the deaths of more than 11,000 people in Palestine, most of whom are women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-controlled Gaza. On Tuesday, Israel and Hamas agreed to a hostage exchange agreement and a multiday pause in fighting.
Student protests across the country, often accompanied by calls for an end to occupation of Palestinian land by Israeli forces, have prompted backlash by those who perceive these protests as antisemetic, endorsements of Hamas. College administrators have since been tasked with navigating those accusations, while not suppressing student voices.
In a Monday statement following the removal of the rocks, the university affirmed the importance of free speech and said the recent paintings related to the Middle East conflict strayed too far from the original purpose of the public message board.
“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,” read the statement.
The university removed a page from its website outlining the purpose and guidelines around painting the rocks earlier this week. UT Dallas did not respond to a list of questions about the rocks’ and website’s removal.
For students, the removal came as a complete surprise.
“Not only was this a 180, but also the reasoning given was hypocritical, lacking and contradictory given the 15 years of history,” said Alex De Jesus, a senior political science student.
De Jesus said students have used the rocks to protest last year’s abortion ruling, police brutality and a push to limit LGBTQ+ rights. He said students have largely managed the rocks themselves in the 15 years the quirky public forums have existed on campus. In the past when hateful speech appeared on the rocks, students have painted over those messages.
A series of photos, published by the UT Dallas student newspaper The Mercury, showed that between Oct. 11 and 15 the rocks were painted in the likeness of an Israeli flag, a Palestinian flag and a split of the two.
During that week, the largest of the spirit rocks oscillated between the two flags within hours. At noon on Oct. 12 one of the rocks was painted to reflect the Palestinian flag and bore the message, “No [peace] on stolen land.” Two hours later, half of the rock was painted white and blue, in the style of Israel’s flag, with the message, “We are winning.”
The following week, UT Dallas President Richard Benson released a statement condemning the attack and applauding students’ civil disagreements about the conflict.
“Students are conversing about their differences; they are gathering donations and peacefully protesting; they are shaking hands,” Benson wrote on Oct. 16.
In response, students criticized Benson’s lack of acknowledgement of Palestinian suffering stemming from Israeli airstrikes. On Oct. 24 the UT Dallas Student Government passed a resolution calling Benson to amend his earlier statement to consider the plight of Palestinians.
The following day, Benson responded to the resolution, acknowledging the pain felt on both sides of the conflict and asked the campus to “rededicate ourselves to presuming good faith on the part of others and to listen with kindness and empathy.”
Roughly one month later, the spirit rocks were removed.
How free speech is regulated on college campuses has been a perennial issue for decades. Conservatives have long argued their political speech has been stifled in traditionally liberal settings. More recently, Texas Republicans have passed legislation to create free speech protections in years past.
Earlier this year, Republican lawmakers banned diversity, equity and inclusion offices at Texas’ public universities, which they argued limited free speech on college campuses.
The timing of the rocks’ removal, De Jesus said, is especially painful because that new law, eliminating UT Dallas’ DEI office, will take effect in 2024. And the rocks — caked in years of paint, which serves as a special place for student groups of color and the LGBTQ+ community to share their message — are no longer part of campus life.
“And so for us, this is a new chapter in something else that’s darker,” he said.
Disclosure: University of Texas – Dallas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/11/22/ut-dallas-israel-palestine-spirit-rocks/.
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