In flap over free speech, Kutztown University loosens sidewalk 'chalking' rules

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Kutztown University eased “chalking” rules after a student group wrote anti-abortion messages on sidewalks

Chalk it up to a lesson in free speech: Kutztown University has changed its policy on sidewalk chalk messages after an antiabortion group protested what it called “censorship by scrub brush.”

The episode began in March when a chapter of Students for Life of America used colored chalk to write antiabortion messages on sidewalks at the rural Berks County university, which is part of the Pennsylvania state system of higher education.

After university employees washed away the messages on two consecutive days, the student group turned to a conservative nonprofit legal organization, Alliance Defending Freedom. It sent a letter to the university president, accusing the school of unconstitutional censorship and demanding a revised chalking policy.

In a statement issued Monday, the university said the March incident “was simply a misunderstanding as the messages were erased during campus cleaning.”

A student group chalked antiabortion messages on Kutztown University sidewalks

“When the university administration became aware of the situation, the group was immediately informed that it had every right to chalk its messages on our campus,” the statement said.

The chalking guidelines were revised in April to “better reflect our support of free speech,” the statement added. The revision scrapped a section on message content that required messages to be “educational or informative in nature,” and prohibited messages deemed to have “a clear and present potential hazard of interfering with the process of the university.”

In a statement Monday, Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer Travis Barham said: “No public university can silence student speech simply because officials don’t like what the students are saying. We commend Kutztown University officials for revising their policy to respect freedom of speech for all students.”

Around the country, “chalking” has long been a cheap, easy way for students to advertise campus events. But in recent years, a number of schools have had flaps over politically charged messages. Last year at Emory University outside Atlanta, for example, chalk declarations supporting then-presidential candidate Donald Trump prompted a protest demonstration; the university president issued a bulletin affirming the value of “vigorous debate, speech, and protest” as well as “civility and inclusion.”

Last month in California, Alliance Defending Freedom and Students for Life decried the erasure of antiabortion chalk texts at Fresno State University. But in that case, a professor and his students scuffed out messages for which the university had given permission, according to alliance lawyers.