In wake of Trump sign vandalism, students question administrative response to free speech

Black paint was thrown on one Trump sign by a student, near the Rock Plaza on Monday, Oct. 26. Photo credit unknown.
Black paint was thrown on one Trump sign by a student, near the Rock Plaza on Monday, Oct. 26. Photo credit unknown.

After the University of Miami College Republicans hung up a sign endorsing President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in front of the Otto G. Richter Library on Monday morning, it was quickly met with backlash from UM students.

Around 9:30 a.m., the Trump sign was covered by a sign taped over it stating, “White supremacists get off my campus.” That sign was eventually removed, but then at around noon, the Trump sign was then damaged with black paint.

According to UMCR president Andrew Hefley, a female UM student was identified as the perpetrator that same day. Her identity is still unknown to the public.

The following day, President Julio Frenk sent out a letter entitled, “A Message on Mutual Respect,” condemning the vandalism of the Trump sign as a violation of freedom of expression.

“This is an unacceptable act of disrespect, and those found responsible will be held accountable,” the letter read. “Our strength is found in our relentless pursuit of truth and our steadfast respect for one another. Any behavior that seeks to silence opinions is anathema to who we are at the University of Miami.”

This incident drew criticism from students, faculty and alumni who say the university did not take similar swift action to issue a response during similar incidents involving Black Lives Matter.

Back in February of 2017, UM senior at the time Jaime Owens, with permission from the university, hung up a banner in support of the Black Lives Matter movement at the University Center Breezeway. However, on March 2 at 9:20 p.m., the sign was stolen.

Black Lives Matter sign hanging up in the Breezeway on campus back in February 2017, which was later stolen.
Black Lives Matter sign hanging up in the Breezeway on campus back in February 2017, which was later stolen. Photo credit: The Miami Hurricane

“I was heartbroken, angry, confused, overwhelmed and disappointed,” Owens told The Hurricane back in 2017. “The banner being stolen felt like an emotional threat to me as a student of color.”

After a six-month process, which included five meetings with Frenk and gathering 750 signatures from students, faculty and staff, Owens was finally granted permission to hang up her banner.

At the time when the banner was stolen, there were four cameras with different angles of the breezeway, contributing to the total of 1338 cameras on campus, according to UMPD Captain Bill Gerlach told The Hurricane. Finally, on March 23, the UM Police Department identified the suspect to be junior at the time Jackson Stewart from surveillance footage at the scene.

The university failed to confirm or deny if any similar letter was sent out denouncing the theft of the Black Lives Matter sign in 2017 or if any action was taken.

The Trump banner and subsequent response from the administration have sparked new discussions around campus about where the line between free speech and hate speech is drawn.

“Even if you make the argument that the Trump sign isn’t necessarily hate speech, it still represents hatred and bigotry that so many UM students have faced and will continue to face,” said a graduate of UM and first-year law student, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly. “It’s disappointing that the administration would make such a deal about a sign when there has been a history of racial incidents simply swept aside but this is the one thing they felt the need to have the president speak about.”

Following the controversy created by the initial sign and subsequent reporting, a UM student who requested anonymity, approached The Miami Hurricane Wednesday with what he says are years of private Whatsapp conversations among UMCR members and officers. The chat is not officially affiliated with UM, but is made up of leaders within UMCR and other members, titled “Students for Trump.” The messages regularly exchanged between group members included phrases such as “kung flu” in reference to the coronavirus and frequent debate over the rights of transgender people.

“I am really having trouble understanding why businesses that sell gender-specific products, such as those for menstrual cycles, are catering to what I would assume to be men claiming to be women,” writes a female member of the chat.

“The gays take way more offense to this sh*t than any other group,” writes another male member.

When The Hurricane reached out to UMCR about this group chat, Hefley said, “I am unaware of any university officiated group chats involving College Republicans outside of the official UM College Republicans group chat, which is titled UMCRS.”

Similarly, students expressed their frustrations with how Frenk issued a statement condemning the vandalism of the Trump sign but has failed to issue a letter in support of the student-athletes facing extreme criticism for wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts on social media. This past summer, Frenk did partake in an 8 minute kneel and protested alongside the entire football team to honor George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement.

On Sept. 10, the entire football team including head coach Manny Diaz wore warm-up “Black Lives Matter” shirts. However, on Wednesday after the official UM athletics Instagram account posted photos as part of the Atlantic Coast Conference UNITY week from the game where the team wore the T-shirts, the account garnered hundreds of comments criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement.

Comments included, “All lives matter not just Black ones” and “Stick to sports no one gives a crap about your politics.”

In response, UM basketball player senior point guard Chris Lykes commented, “Y’all talking crazy in these comments. I’m disappointed. Former UM basketball player Bruce Brown also chimed in below Lykes’ comment: “These are the people who smile in ur face and want autographs… it’s crazy.”

Director of Athletics Blake James shared the following with The Miami Hurricane in response:

“As part of ACC Unity Week and NCAA Diversity and Inclusion Week, Miami Athletics is highlighting some of our recent initiatives on social issues. One of the key points of pride that makes the University of Miami so great is our togetherness and what brings us closer, which is our love for The U and for one another. It is disappointing and disheartening that some choose divisiveness over unity. We will always side with unity and we will always support our student-athletes.”

No one from the university administration was made available for comments on this matter. Instead, the university issued the following statement:

“Our strength is found in our relentless pursuit of truth and our unyielding respect for one another. Any behavior that seeks to silence opinions is anathema to who we are at the University of Miami. Indeed, the only way we can each feel safe and heard is to offer the same freedom of expression we want for ourselves to those whose views are different from our own—our individual and collective power rests in our ability to respectfully disagree. I condemn, in the strongest possible terms, any acts of vandalism, lawlessness, or violence aimed at chilling the speech of anyone in our campus community.”

Student senator from Easton Residential College Ishaan Chatterjee during Wednesday’s Senate meeting said he felt as though Frenk’s letter was out of touch considering he has yet to comment on the Instagram posts and other controversial issues on campus, including the debate surrounding facial recognition.

“Julio Frenk’s response, I think, was a little bit out of touch in that it was very instant, his response to the paint on the sign, but we still have yet to hear from him from responses of angry comments on the Black Lives Matter posts for the football players showing their support for a movement that they deeply identify with,” Chatterjee said during the meeting.

Chatterjee also emphasized Frenk hasn’t responded to claims surrounding the use of facial recognition on campus but quickly addressed the vandalized sign.

Students aren’t alone in their frustration with the response from the administration.

“The university is applying an unfair double standard,” said Martin Nesvig, a professor at UM who specializes in Mesoamerican studies. “They are going all-in on pro-Trump campaign literature, yet at the same time feel anyone who doesn’t register their protest needs to be tracked and intimidated.”