A Decade Without Chalking, Part Three: An Interview with Claire Potter

The Tenured Radical reflects on Bennet’s moratorium, student activism, and the meaning of chalking today.

Wesleying’s multi-part retrospective on the 2002 chalking moratorium continues with a faculty perspective: a conversation with Claire Potter, Professor of History and American Studies at Wesleyan from 1991–2011.

In the wake of President Bennet’s moratorium announcement in October, 2002, Wesleyan faculty from across the disciplines spoke up to register their views. Some authored a Wespeak supporting the ban, arguing that the “free exchange of ideas . . . is not facilitated by the hostile, racist, or sexually explicit slogans” reportedly contained in chalkings. Others expressed dissent, culminating in a 44-8 faculty vote asking Bennet to overturn the moratorium. Perhaps no faculty member, though, argued for free speech as forcefully and passionately as Professor Potter.

According to the Argus, just before the vote, she spoke up at a faculty meeting on chalking:

Chair of the American Studies Program Claire Potter also spoke at length to the faculty. She cited the Constitution and Bill of Rights as upholding free speech and said the 1st Amendment of the Constitution also holds true for obscenity.

“No one has the right not to be offended,” Potter said. [ . . . ] Addressing some of the comments from faculty members who viewed the chalkings as an inept way of expressing themselves and talk of helping students better express their views, Potter asserted that it is not the faculty’s place to interfere with student expression.

“We need to support freedom of speech for our students,” she said. “We do not need to understand it. We are old.”

Later that month, Potter authored a Proposal for a Coalition in Support of Free Speech, urging colleagues to “organize around the notion that it is NOT desirable to articulate ‘community standards’ for expression that are more restrictive than those expressed by the founders in the First Amendment.” Instead, she wrote, “we must ask the university administration to produce a statement which reaffirms free expression and academic freedom as the standard of our community.”

Ten years later, I asked Professor Potter if her views on “community standards” have changed over the years. They have not. Today, though, she speaks of President Bennet with great fondness and respect. While the (former) students I interviewed argue that Bennet banned chalking in an attempt to “mainstream” Wesleyan’s appearance to parents and prefrosh, Potter argues that he was honest in his desire to formulate community standards. “He was, and is, a very sincere man,” Professor Potter tells me. “I regretted that in my role as a teacher I felt I had to side with the students and against him on this. But I did.”

Also known by the longtime blogging handle Tenured Radical, Potter currently teaches at the New School for Public Engagement in New York. For an insightful academic reflection on the meaning of the chalking controversy, read her 2008 essay “Chalking the Borders,” in which she reframes the debate as one over space rather than speech and presents Wesleyan’s sidewalks as a contested border space between the public, governed by principles of free expression, and the private, “governed by ethical and legal principles that prioritized the production of knowledge—not politics.” This interview was conducted by email late last month.

* * *

What was the role of chalking on campus when you first arrived at Wesleyan? How did you feel about it?

The purpose of chalking in its early years was to get a message out to the community quickly and concisely, often in an interrogatory form that provoked or encouraged the reader to think outside of the box. That “box” for Wesleyan was that the campus was a diverse and open community where racial and sexual minorities were accepted and happy. As a queer faculty member I was well aware that students who had come into the community under this assumption struggled with bigotry, usually as individuals. So to the extent that chalking reflected a kind of collective action on the part of students, and before we used the term, a form of civic engagement, I was enthusiastic about it. And I do think that it is important to say that chalking was relatively uncontroversial for many years when it functioned mostly as a form of community formation, group bonding, and visibility. Some faculty, and some students, resented it. Despite that, the administration thought it was best left alone, and I think this was wise.

From a faculty perspective, at what point did you become aware of administrative displeasure with chalking?

Administrative displeasure with chalking was linked to the escalation of verbal violence used by chalkers, and a shift from the declarative to the transitive. You know, it went from “I’m gay, Mom!” to “I fucked your Mom!” From “I love blow jobs!” to “I gave your Dad/roommate/brother/son a blow job!” So I would have to say that administrators were not alone in their concerns: university support staff were distressed at what they regarded as intimidating obscenities in their workplace, faculty who supported chalking were concerned at the turn things were taking, and one of my conservative female colleagues—who had publicly opposed chalking—began receiving pornography through an anonymous email account. Really. Not. Cool.

How did that progress to the moratorium?

I recall things escalating really, really fast, with the chalking actions finding one more boundary to cross that would provoke even more vicious responses by other students. I think it’s important to emphasize that it was other students who raised the flag first, not administrators. Other students went out and counter-chalked; many of the things they chalked were homophobic, racist, and intimidating. Although I supported the right to chalk, I also saw things heading in a direction that was hard to understand as a student strategy for change—there were no demands, no leadership, and no sense of what policies the pressure was supposed to affect. It’s worth noting that this is the generation that produced Occupy Wall Street, and that these organizing theories have been refined since.

So the initial concern for Doug Bennet [’59], the President at the time (and you would have to check this with him), was the rapid decline of a civil atmosphere among students. It was not about the reputation of the university. The guy had worked for the state department, and he believed deeply in civil discourse as an alternative to violence, verbal or physical. In retrospect—and this may seem like an odd comparison—Bennet had been intimately involved with monitoring the crisis in Rwanda, during the Clinton administration, where verbal violence preceded calamitous physical violence. In retrospect, I think he may have had concerns that verbal attacks could escalate into physical confrontations between students.

Some of the alums I’ve spoken to claim that Bennet’s moratorium was less about civil discourse and more motivated by the way the University was perceived by parents or prefrosh for purposes of fundraising and college rankings. What’s your evidence for arguing against this view?

Well, I would ask what their evidence is for assuming that what President Bennet said was all a thin disguise for an exercise in re-branding. He was, and is, a very sincere man, and was not given to manipulation or evasion. I really liked that about him, and I regretted that in my role as a teacher I felt I had to side with the students and against him on this. But I did.

I think that the alums may not have the longer perspective on student protest that some faculty did. The nature of chalking changed dramatically—it turned very ugly, very fast, in my view, and the lack of a queer student organization meant (in the analysis of Max Mishler ’04, a student of mine at the time) that literally no one was accountable for any harm that might result from these confrontations. I don’t think Bennet’s concerns were in the least misplaced. I also think he was doing his job: what if one of those chalking encounters had produced physical violence or a workplace harassment suit from an employee? Those were things that were spoken about at the time and I think they were real possibilities.

You mention that students were (counter-)chalking “homophobic, racist and intimidating messages.” Given your opposition to the moratorium, how did you (or would you have) advise(d) Bennet to respond to this situation? Similarly, how do you think chalked attacks on specified individuals should have been moderated, if at all?

My view is that attacking individuals is rarely, if ever, just. I think that when you do politics in a democracy you have to be restrained in relation to individuals no matter how foul you think they are. You need to focus on the structural and institutional questions that can really allow you to articulate your grievances as issues of rights, broadly applied. To clarify, as I recall it, Bennet was also troubled because these attacks and counter-attacks were anonymous, and he felt anonymous attacks were particularly insidious. Queer students, as I recall, felt that they were entitled to anonymity because they were more vulnerable which, in retrospect, I think put them in a politically weak position.

But chalking was also a sign of immense frustration with university processes that had stalled practically every progressive initiative. I think that queer students and students of color had legitimate grievances—lack of health and emotional health service providers who were attuned to LGBT issues—and the university should have addressed them.

In what ways were there “no demands, no leadership, and no sense of what policies the pressure was supposed to affect”?

The students who were doing the chalking—working on an anarchist model—were adamant about the non-hierarchical nature of their activism, their refusal of formal organization and leadership roles, and their purposeful anonymity. This meant that there was no one to negotiate with, and there were no formal demands being made—except that the chalking moratorium be lifted. Unfortunately, chalking went from being a means to political action to being an end in itself.  I think the students painted themselves into a corner and in a way, so did the University. I think appointing mediators might have helped, but not if the students refused to reveal themselves or participate in a structured exchange to hash out the issues that made their actions necessary to begin with.

You mention in your essay on chalking that postering preceded chalking. At what point did this shift into chalking take place?

It was in the mid to late 1990s, and was in part prompted by student awareness that they were creating a lot of unnecessary work for the maintenance staff who had to scrape the posters off the ground and walls. Some faculty also resented having the posters slipped under their doors, some of which targeted individuals for criticism on homophobia, but I don’t recall students caring much about that.

You wrote in a 2002 letter that you opposed Bennet’s (and the WSA’s) notion of “community standards” for expression. Have your views on this changed at all since 2002?

My views on “community standards” have not changed. Historically, community standards tend to represent the views of those in power and silence those who are not.  Perhaps one of oddest Supreme Court decisions ever is Miller v. California (1973), which tried to get around the First Amendment precedents that allows communities to set their own standards as to what is, or is not, obscene. What that means on a practical level is that sex businesses end up concentrated in economically and politically powerless neighborhoods, whether they want them or not, and communities can block a lesbian bookstore or a gay diversity curriculum because it violates the “values” of the majority.  So it puts citizens in the minority in the position of watching their neighbors vote their rights away—which, of course, has happened in states that have passed referenda opposing gay marriage.

What was Bennet’s reaction to the (majority) faculty stance against the moratorium? Did you ever confront faculty who supported the ban?

I think Bennet thought the faculty was wrong, and that he was president, and that chalking was a moment where he needed to take a leadership position even if it was not fully supported.  I also think faculty votes like that have a strange quality—a lot of people who might have voted against that resolution were not at the meeting.  The people who were at the meeting were an unusual coalition of liberals, a few radicals, and a significant number of people who I would characterize as libertarian conservatives. This latter group gives up no rights without a fight, particularly ones that might have bearing on faculty speech and intellectual work, which this one clearly did.

Did your outspokenness on this ever cause you tension in your professional life? Were Bennet or other faculty bothered by the stance you took?

I don’t recall more than one or two unpleasant exchanges with other faculty, who (at Wesleyan) tend to be pretty restrained in expressing their differences with each other openly. Doug Bennet was always respectful to me, in all things, and I tried to match that—we also really liked each other, which helped. And I think it is fine for people to disagree strongly on something of this nature and still understand that they can have a lot of other things in common. I think it’s one of the weaknesses of contemporary politics that people tend to write each other off when they disagree.

Your 2008 essay on chalking is fascinating. Did anything in particular motivate you to write it?

Yes: I was asked to contribute to a volume on safety and public space, and I wanted to reflect on what had happened in the chalking controversy and what it meant.

Any other interesting anecdotes that come to mind when you reflect on the chalking debate?

In the midst of the controversy, I was chatting with one of Doug Bennet’s family members about what was at stake, and this person started to laugh and said, “You do realize he is a prude, don’t you?” I look back on this fondly, because it added a very human dimension to his frustration. But I also realize how much he restrained himself, over and over again, as students insulted him and his wife in the most graphic and inexcusable ways.

How did the controversy over chalking resolve itself, if at all?

The controversy resolved itself because the students graduated! They are now off organizing, practicing law, having babies, getting gaymarried and whatnot. It would be interesting to get some of them back to campus to reflect on their activism then and now. Some of the most radical queer students were the quickest to run to the altar when gay marriage became legal, which is interesting, since getting married is really not radical at all.

Anything else worth mentioning?

A last word:  as a historian, I think the chalking ban was very different then than it is now, although I’m not on campus to really gather my evidence. It’s different in all kinds of ways, but one thing stands out for me. In my recollection, Doug Bennet was really not concerned about the University’s image. He was concerned about the nature of community and how anonymous attacks on unspecified, or specified, members of the community created ruptures in a place dedicated to liberal thought and intellectual progress that did not exist. Students who chalked felt the opposite: that those ruptures did exist, and they were just exposing them. For a variety of reasons that I do and do not understand, Wesleyan manages its image very closely now, and so it’s harder to have this potentially more fruitful discussion.

Recently, the chalking debate has (sort of) reemerged on campus in the wake of Homecoming Weekend. What’s your advice to current students interested in promoting free speech through chalk?

Myself? I would start a publication on paper and on the web and call it “Ch@lk!ng.” Seriously, I think this iteration of conflict over chalking is very different from the last one: students have an articulated demand that addresses structural inequalities that reach across the boundaries of identity. Access to education is a community issue, and from afar I think the students are making a good case for that. There are solutions to be found, and the students have some good ideas about what those solutions are. I wouldn’t allow chalking to become the distraction that it always is, and I would find new, creative ways to create allies and protest publicly.

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This gallery of relevant articles is culled from Arguses printed in October and November of 2002. For more on the 2002 chalking moratorium, click here, here, or here. Professor Potter’s 2002 letter appears here; her 2008 article, “Chalking the Borders,” is available here.

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  • Your bias against free speech is contained in the statement, “no one was accountable for any harm that might result from these confrontations.”. The confrontations were chalking episodes and not physical violence. You pretend to be for free speech, but it’s only for free speech that you agree with. I don’t think you have the most basic understanding of the First Amendment and that is tragic for an educator. You are producing a generation that Stalin would be proud of and Hitler would also approve.

    “The nature of chalking changed dramatically—it turned very ugly, very fast, in my view, and the lack of a queer student organization meant (in the analysis of Max Mishler ’04, a student of mine at the time) that literally no one was accountable for any harm that might result from these confrontations.”

    • Do you think that only physical violence causes harm to people? I think there’s a lot of evidence that public speech *does* harm others — it can be a form of bullying, not uncommon on the internet nowadays, and can certainly be abusive. Free speech law is a highly nuanced thing, and the protections for anonymous speech are even trickier. Furthermore, slander and libel law not infrequently expands to abusive and/or violent speech that misrepresents or lampoons an individual. This is the US Supreme Court, not Hitler or Stalin.

      In addition, I didn’t disagree with a lot of the chalkings, and I stuck with the students to the bitter end even though I *did* disagree with them about some of their tactics. But I think it is childish not to acknowledge that the person you are arguing with has a position that a reasonable person might hold — even if you disagree with them.

  • anon

    Does this remind anyone of the current ACB controversy?

  • illumanitiai

    Great journalism from the ‘sleying–gotta love it. Especially when the Argus has become such a snooze-fest….

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