La Crosse truck sparks Confederate flag debate anew

What does it mean to defend the right to free speech on a college campus? The question has been analyzed for several years, mostly surrounding the choice of speakers — as was the case this month at the University of Minnesota — but rarely does it involve a truck.

It happened at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse when students walking to class saw a Confederate flag on the grill of a truck at a construction site on campus.

“I was let down. I really hoped we were beyond that in 2015,” Matthew Dreis, a senior and physics major told the La Crosse Tribune. “I think we have problems with institutionalized racism at our school and when we see it at the construction site of the physical building where students are getting their education it solidifies that there’s a problem with our campus atmosphere.”

When he reported it to campus officials, the truck driver was asked to remove it, which he did.

But then Zachary Allen, another senior, cut to the chase. Can you support a First Amendment right while actively working to extinguish expression at the same time?

“Nope, I don’t support the Confederate flag,” Allen said. “I don’t agree with its use, but they still have every right under the law to do so.”

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Paula Knudson sent an email to students last week apologizing for the display of the flag on the truck’s grill, then sent another after Allen’s concern was voiced, saying she will defend the right to free speech, but that she also will protect students’ “right to live and be educated free from hatred.” She said no one forced the trucker to remove the flag.

UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow, after meeting with students of color who were upset with the flag’s appearance, told the paper that the university has “to balance free expression with welcoming campus climate.”

After the meeting, Gow denounced the flag as a “symbol of hate and, in South Carolina, murder of people because of their skin color,” said Gow, referring to the racially motivated shootings of nine African-Americans at a Charleston, S.C., church in June that prompted the removal of the flag from South Carolina Capitol’s grounds.

“I know that people will say that it has a lot of meanings, and it does, but in light of what happened in South Carolina, it clearly is a racist symbol,” added Gow.

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