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.

More campus: Reporters barred from Smith College sit-in held in solidarity with University of Missouri students unless they support movement (Mass Live)

  • Dan

    “Hello, Mr. blue collar worker, I’m from the college. Some students are offended by your racist self-expression, could you remove that flag from your truck?”

    “Sure, no problem”

    (Did not see that response coming)

    • Kassie

      Or, “Hello Mr. Foreman On A Good Paying Job, one of your employees has a racist symbol on his truck.Get him to move it.”

      Then, “Hello Mr. Blue Collar Worker, this is your boss, move your racist flag or get fired.”

      Grumble, grumble, “Yes, sir.”

      • Dan

        lol, fair point

  • cmouse

    I can imagine a University student wetting all over themselves seeing a Confederate Battle Flag. Really? Are we so backward in 2015 that we have to trample all over other people’s heritage while supporting #blacklivesmatter and other college protest groups. That First Amendment that gives you the right to protest also gives him the right to adorn his vehicle with a Confederate Flag. Get a grip and grow up. You’re in for a big shock when you hit the work force because people aren’t going to deal with this. They’ll just fire you and hire someone else.

    • Dan

      Most employers aren’t going to let someone adorn their workspace with racist imagery like the confederate flag in the first place, at least not in Minnesota. They certainly wouldn’t fire someone for complaining about it.

    • Personally, I wouldn’t want to work with or for racists, but you can do whatever you feel is right.

    • Jeff C.

      Would you be as surprised if it was a swastika or a burning cross or a sign that said, “No Irish Need Apply”? Good for the students for speaking up. The more we let racist/sexist/offensive comments/jokes/symbols go without commenting on them, the longer they will be considered acceptable. The trucker’s First Amendment rights weren’t trampled – they could put the flag back on the truck later.

      • Yeah, he could. But that still doesn’t address the basic question of the piece — which was not: Is the Confederate Flag racist, by the way — which is what is the way to balance conflicting rights? It’s more a legal question than a philosophical one.

        I also continue to want to ask people, “how?” when they say they’ll defend free speech. To me, that phrase is getting to be the “thoughts of prayers” of the constitution. Mere words.

        . The trucker did the school a big favor by being the agreeable sort..

        • John S

          I like how you put “forced” in italics in the article. Asking him, a contractor for the university, to remove a flag by a university official is force. Not physical force, sure, but the threat of not including the contractor in a next bid is still force.

        • Khatti

          In addition to which the trucker was not actually a student there, and shouldn’t have been required to live under whatever draconian code the students choose for themselves.

          • Jay T. Berken

            You are right, but indirectly the truck driver is an employee of the university and can ask the employee to be fired or depending on how the contract is written, can rip it up and/or not renew it with the company. This driver does have the first amendment, but actions has consequences and the university has the power of the purse. Why do people feel their actions do not have those consequences and burn bridges?

          • Under the scenario you describe, given that this is a public institution, I would think asking an “employee” to be fired over protected speech pretty much would fit the definition of a First Amendment violation.

          • Jay T. Berken

            That is true. I got a little ahead of myself. The public institute, if they do have a contract, could not renew the contract with the company if public discourse persist.

        • Rob

          Bob, thanks for trying to re-direct the focus to your original point. Free speech doesn’t mean much if the only speech that ends up being protected is speech that the majority of people are comfortable with. Did the majority of Americans feel O.K. about the National Socialist Party wanting to march in Skokie in 1977? No. But the Supreme Court correctly upheld their First Amendment right to do so.

          Thankfully, Constitutional rights aren’t based on what the majority wants. I think the leadership of UW/LaCrosse absolutely made the wrong call by asking the truck owner to remove the flag. Yes, the flag is vile and epitomizes racism, but the truck owner, as a private citizen, had the 1st Amendment right to display it; shame on the University for caving to majority sentiment.

          • Khatti

            My understanding of free speech (from my childhood) is that you were going to be offended periodically.

      • Khatti

        No swastikas, but I do wear Thor’s hammers. Where exactly do they fit on your scale of racial incorrectness?

      • Khatti

        Are you into Neu Deutsche Harte? Probably not. Would you favor bands like Eisbrecher and Rammstein be banned from Minnesota because…well they’re German! I’m trying to get a handle on where your sense of outrage ends and how much compliance you require from the rest of us.

  • Gary F

    Can we possibly wipe clean all of history and things that offend us to achieve our Utopian world?

    • Khatti

      A more pertinent question is one I wonder about all the time: if the Left somehow wins the culture wars what are they going to do with the POWs?

      • Gary F

        Who is John Galt?

      • Rob

        The POWs will be forced to eat locally sourced food, promise not to listen to any more mansplaining, do yoga, burn incense, wear tie-dyed clothing and listen to Grateful Dead albums.

        • Gary F

          At some point they will end up as so many have who refused to comply in the past, at the end of a fun barrel.

          • Khatti

            No…while Lefties may love regulation they abhor genuine head-banging. I’m always curious to see what happens if this dichotomy is tested against their desires.

          • Rob

            I’m guessing you meant gun barrel, Gary, not fun barrel; you may need to hire a proofreader — just sayin’. If you did mean gun barrel, then thank god for the 2nd Amendment! Yes, they’ll be renditioned to a secret location where they’ll be forced to listen to sitar music and read all the Doonesbury comic strips from beginning to end.

          • Gary F

            damn cell phone.

          • A poor worker blames his tools.

          • Gary F

            YEP, the auto correct drives me nuts

  • lindblomeagles

    I’m going to be blunt here. Apologies in advance. The Free Speech protections some are trying to give the Confederate Flag is way past dumb and smacks of a race-based double standard. The University of Wisconsin La Crosse WOULD NOT ALLOW African American gang graffiti displayed on its walls, buildings, or grass. Yes, gang symbols is speech. But in the university’s purview of balancing safety with speech, such symbols are not allowed, AND EVERYONE, I MEAN EVERY ONE understands this AND DOES NOT QUESTION IT. If Syrian students began displaying ISIS flags on the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, the University again would request the flags be removed. Likewise, NONE OF US, especially Caucasian Americans would question the wisdom of removing ISIS flags from the building. This is the 21st Century. Everybody knows what that flag implies. It’s time we stopped trying fervently hard to act like the Confederate Flag is a sacred thing different from other forms of violent, hate based, divisive speech. It isn’t, and it never was.

    • jon

      I like the comparison to the ISIS flag.

      I can’t imagine those flying the confederate flag and shouting “Free speech” at the top of their lungs would be ok with me flying the ISIS flag, but because they support free speech, and believe that a flag qualifies as speech, then I guess they have to be ok with it because it’s my right, otherwise they are accusing me of these “thought crimes” I hear so much about.

      Of course I wouldn’t fly the ISIS flag because I support ISIS in any way… instead I’d do it because I have a cultural heritage to when the first hunters and gatherers began agriculture in the region.
      Much like the confederate flag is used to represent the whole of the south (and not the war or ideology that it were behind it’s creation) I believe the ISIS flag represents the whole of mesopotamia, and the culture there with-in, and anyone who opposes that flag is attacking my cultural heritage! In particular my Agricultural cultural heritage, My family was farmers, and if they can’t appreciate that then FREE SPEECH!

      Yes, that argument should hold up as well as most of the ones I’ve heard in favor of the confederate flag.
      And following through on this will get me on every government watch list!

      I’ve no intention of actually flying an ISIS flag. Though as a thought experiment this a fun one.

      • Khatti

        But with Confederates we maintain the illusion that they are still American citizens. We don’t maintain such an illusion with ISIS.

  • Jack

    To borrow a phrase – “Can’t we all just get along?”

    • Khatti

      The short answer is no. That might be the long answer too.

  • ClintJohnson

    “Hello, Mr. Blue Collar Worker. An elitist student is cowering in fear and hatred of you without meeting you. That student and demands that you do what he or she says or he or she will brand you a racist without ever having met you. The student and the university are threatening your employment and really do not care if you work or not because you are a blue collar worker and not of any value in their mind. Unless you are attending a university where you can be offended by a piece of cloth, you are less than sub-human.”

    • Khatti

      Khatti say all right. Khatti not mean scare cute, pathetic children. Khatti understand complete….complete…Khatti not know word.

      Actually I would think many of these kids would come from the same milieu as the trucker. This is not Yale or Harvard we’re talking about.

      • Khatti

        I’ve come to view my portrayal of these kids as pathetic to be cruel and, more important, inaccurate. I’ve come to realize who they truly remind me of: comic book hero, and very soul of good intentions, JUDGE DREDD.

  • Beauregard76

    To support the view of the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate and racism is to support ignorance, bigotry and racism itself:

    • I’d like to see some attribution on that essay.

      Because this one, from a historian at Virginia Commonwealth suggests otherwsie:

      So what can we learn from Cherokee experiences during the Civil War era? Plenty. In eliminating the symbols of rebellion from public spaces Cherokee leaders recognized that their predecessors had made grievous mistakes. Their errors and exploits, though, were not forgotten. At a reunion of Confederate Cherokees in New Orleans in 1903, surviving veterans posed for a photograph with the confederate battle flag. And Cherokee women, such as Narcissa Owen, were active members of the Daughters of the Confederacy.

      Late-19th-century Cherokee people new they could not escape their immediate past, but they could acknowledge mistakes and missteps. In discarding the imagery of the Civil War the leaders of the Cherokee Nation of Indian Territory did not turn their backs on “heritage.” To the contrary, they rebuilt their nation with a symbol of unity that combined tradition with the modernity of their own sovereign nation-state.


      • Beauregard76

        The only mistake with that essay would be accepting the idea that the Confederate soldier and his service was in fact a “grievous mistake” a premise that is not by any means a universally accepted viewpoint.

        Was secession wrong? Depends on ones POV. I for one do not believe – constitutionally speaking – that either side was technically wrong, nor entirely right either.

        I personally do not believe in it, nor entirely with the goals of the Confederate government; but then again the legacy of the Confederate flag is not sorely about the aims of Confederate government or its leaders aims.

        It was built on the service of the Confederate soldier and his heroism as an American soldier and veteran.

        One can acknowledge the wrongs of slavery in America and still respect the Confederate soldier (regardless of what color he was) and his battle flag – a living symbol that has plenty of history that did not end in 1865, and much of which was not entirely negative.

        For example I don’t have to respect the British Empire, or support the aims of King George III in order to recognize the bravery of an American Loyalist soldier, and respect their descendants right to be proud of that heritage or find some positive aspect of that to advance American cultural identity for the whole.

        Oh sure we could discard Confederate heritage, label it “negative” and simply dismiss all positive efforts made on the part of Confederate heritage supporters to promote unity over the last 30 years; but who and what agenda does that ultimately serve in the long run? From all I can tell, nobody and nothing positive – only those who continue to seek to divide Americans by class and race for their own ends.

        In the end, you can acknowledge mistakes and missteps, but you cannot disregard the positives as entirely meaningless either.

        Simply getting rid of the battle flag, dismissing positive aspects of that living heritage while blindly accepting the negatives to promote fear is not “moving forward” in any meaningful way at all.

        Indeed, nobody on the other side has yet to offer anything other than meaningless symbolic gestures and useless platitudes to justify the act. Simply saying, “I feel your pain” does not take away that other person’s pain, nor does it relieve you of whatever guilt (either real or fanciful) you think you need to atone for either.

        Can you offer one?