Administration whitewashes ‘threat’
Friday was a colorful day for the Fence. At midnight, a group of students painted the Fence to advertise Bhangra in the Burgh, which took place Saturday night at Soldiers & Sailors. Between 5 a.m. and sunrise, the event ad painted on the fence was replaced by a message in black and white — “No illegals… no burritos… You better think twice America.” The letters M-E-X-I-C-O ran across the fence’s posts.
The message got students talking. But what many students considered the most contentious part of the painting was a third coat of paint applied around 3 p.m. on Friday. Several students saw a Facilities Management Services (FMS) employee using a roller to apply a new thick coat of white paint to the Fence to cover the message.
Members of the Carnegie Involvement Association (CIA), a student organization, noticed the man’s actions as they were making pancakes at the tables outside Doherty Hall.
“I noticed he was painting the Fence, which was kind of weird because he’s not a student and shouldn’t be doing that,” said Ian Voysey, a junior computer science and mathematical sciences major.
Voysey and classmate Alex May approached the employee and asked if he could give them any information about what he was doing.
“We were told that [the message] was causing offense to some people,” said May, a junior mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering major.
The employee stated that, while he didn’t personally take offense to the message, it was not appropriate to display on the Fence, Voysey said.
To “take the Fence,” students must stake out the area around the Fence all day until midnight, at which point they are allowed to paint. Students use the Fence to advertise events, publicize a club, or for any other reason. There are no written guidelines regarding what can be written on the Fence.
According to tradition, the Fence is the property of students, not the administration, said Gina Casalegno, director of Student Activities. However, the school supports students’ rights to remove from the Fence messages they deem offensive, and will supply paint to students who report an offensive message on the Fence. Those students can paint over the content without waiting until midnight.
However, sometime during the day on Friday, a maintenance request was filed by Tonya Royal, assistant to the Dean of Student Affairs, to FMS stating that there was profanity on the Fence and ordering FMS personnel to paint the Fence white.
Paul Fowler, associate dean of student affairs, explained the university’s response.
“The dean of Students Office called me and said that they had received a number of complaints,” Fowler said. The complaints, he said, were from members of the campus community that interpreted the words on the Fence as a threat against Mexican immigrants, warning them to “think twice” before crossing the border.
“There’s a difference between ‘offensive’ and ‘threatening,’ ” Fowler said. “As an administration, we’re not going to regulate offensive speech. But this moved beyond being offensive to being threatening. I understand if [the message] was in support of immigration; if that was the message they were trying to relay, I’m sorry they chose those words.”
While Fowler said that it is “extremely rare that there would be an administrative action to paint the Fence,” he did justify such action if it was to remove a message perceived as a threat, and that, in the 12 years that he has been at Carnegie Mellon, the administration has not done so before.
“There have been times when people have painted things on the Fence for the sheer obscenity factor,” Fowler said.
Fowler maintained that the administration’s removal of the message had nothing to do with Family Weekend or the International Festival, both of which were taking place at the time.
Many Hispanic as well as non-Hispanic students were offended by the message.
“People I talked to were in disbelief that it was on the fence to begin with and found it offensive,” said Karina Alvarez, a junior statistics major and secretary of the Spanish and Latin Student Association (SALSA).
Alvarez is of Mexican and Salvadorian descent.
“Why I got so upset was that I didn’t know the intentions of that message,” Alvarez said. “Am I supposed to be offended, or should I be glad that someone is paying attention to the immigration laws?”
A friend later informed Alvarez that the message is a well-known quote from a Hispanic protester.
Alvarez’s interpretation of the message itself was different from the administration’s interpretation that prompted immediate removal from the Fence.
“My interpretation of the Fence was that most of the immigrants coming over to America are Mexican, and the best reason why they’re here is because they make burritos,” she said. “It’s downplaying a lot of achievements of the Hispanic community, more specifically, the Mexican community. People should be allowed to enter America on any basis.”
Alvarez spoke to Casalegno, who encouraged her to gather a group of students, go to the administration, and ask for paint to cover the words they found offensive. However, by the time Alvarez had done so, she and her group went out to the Fence to find that it had already been painted over.
“I’m glad it was taken down as quickly as it was, but I believe that having students paint over the fence would have had a greater impact since the Fence is student tradition,” she said. “It should be students correcting students, not the administration.”
Editor’s Note: Karina Alvarez is on The Tartan’s business staff. Gina Casalegno is The Tartan’s adviser.