Political, racial and gender tensions between students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have erupted over freedom of speech and drawn deep battle lines.
Senior Jasmine Kiah said she felt "unsafe" as a black woman because of posters in the campus Student Activity Center (SAC) put up by the GOP Badgers — also called the College Republicans — who support President Donald Trump.
"The Student Activity Center is a place where all students should feel safe. For black people and other people of color, we do not feel welcome," Kiah told VOA. "Trump signs are a representation of hate."
Taped up posters
Kiah protested by taping anti-Trump posters on a glass wall of the College Republicans’ office that faces into the SAC. While she was counterprotesting the Trump display, she played an anti-Trump protest song by the late community activist and rapper Nipsey Hussle on her cellphone.
GOP student members said they felt unsafe and called university police, as reported by the Badger-Herald, an independent student newspaper. Campus police arrived, asked Kiah to leave and escorted her from the building.
The University of Wisconsin released a statement saying that, according to campus policy, only preapproved signs by the Student Activities Office can be displayed in public spaces on campus. Also, posters are not allowed on glass walls, the policy states.
UW supports the free speech rights of its students along with civil discourse around political issues.— UW-Madison (@UWMadison) October 9, 2019
UW policies prohibit the posting of unapproved signs, posters and other material in public spaces. 1/2
The College Republicans' posters were taped to the inside of the glass wall, and it was not clear how university officials were evaluating their placement.
The incident escalated when the GOP Badgers posted a video on Twitter of Kiah taping signs on the outside of their office window that said, "Donald Trump is … racist … sexist … bigot … homophobic … ." The video elicited more than 10,500 reactions, with both sides receiving support and criticism.
"Another example of total intolerance from the left in an environment that is supposed to welcome a marketplace of ideas," the GOP Badgers tweeted. They called Kiah an "intolerant student in complete hysteria" whose protest "targets" the UW-Madison College Republicans’ student office.
Erin Perrine, deputy communications director for the president's re-election campaign, tweeted that the video was "a disgusting display by the 'tolerant left.' " ... Good thing those signs won't stop the @GOPBadgers! #LeadRight!"
Alex Walker, campaign director for Republican U.S. Representative Bryan Steil, in a tweet called the video "the intolerance of the left on display." Conservative Charlie Hoffman called Kiah's protest "shameful," "childish" and "ridiculous."
State senator's letter
Wisconsin state Senator David Craig wrote the university on behalf of the College Republicans, asking the school to investigate the matter.
"There seems to be a growing animosity on that campus towards conservative thought and conservative expression while the opposing view is shielded, protected, supported and encouraged," he wrote to university Chancellor Rebecca Blank. "There is no shortage of leftist ideology permeating from campus organizations." The GOP Badgers followed up with a tweet.
Support for Kiah defended her freedom of speech and her right to protest.
"To some white people, a POC's [person of color’s] default setting is aggressive/scary/violent. So when a POC is doing something that white person does not understand, like, or approve of ... HYSTERIA!" tweeted user Scout.
"The only overreacting ... that I see here is from the GOP Badgers," tweeted user Micah Faulds.
UW junior Nile Lansana, who works at the Student Activity Center, said he witnessed the incident.
"Jasmine was calm, respectful and resolute in her protest. ‘Intolerant' and ‘in complete hysteria' are mischaracterizations of the incident," Lansana wrote to VOA. "All she had was music, tape and paper. There was also an entire wall of glass between them, and Jasmine never made any attempt to speak to or approach them."
Dean of Students Christina Olstad responded to the senator's letter, saying the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards was reviewing the incident.
Commentator sees 'snowflakes'
Political commentator Charlie Sykes, who has hosted a conservative radio show and is originally from Wisconsin, responded to the College Republicans.
"I read all the stories, and I shared the news with people who are also in the university world, and we thought you guys came off like snowflakes," the Badger-Herald reported. “Snowflake” is typically used as an insult by conservatives describing liberals whom they deem weak.
"It looked like to me that you were assaulted by someone with a piece of paper and words," Sykes said.
"We understand that not everyone on campus agrees with us, however, there are over 45,000 students on our campus, which means that there are 45,000 different opinions and the goal should not be that all students agree, but that we all respect one another's opinions and enjoy the beautiful UW-Madison campus together as one student body," Ryan Christens, UW junior and College Republicans chairman, wrote to VOA.
Kiah said she felt threatened by the backlash from conservative critics at her university, on social media and from the government.
"I was not destroying anything. I was peacefully protesting," Kiah said. "If a white student had done this, it would not have gone this far."