Hate speech on campus rock: Is it protected?

YSU Rock Painting

Bruce Walton

Youngstown State University students painted over their campus rock Monday after it was painted with messages in support of ISIS late Sunday night or early Monday morning.

The rock, painted red, white, blue and black, originally included the messages “YSU supports ISIS,” “France deserves destruction” and “We are coming.”

Students repainted the rock Monday afternoon with messages including “God bless America” and “world peace.”

The Youngstown Vindicator reported university grounds crews repainted over the rock Monday morning with white paint, and about 30 students repainted the rock later that afternoon. 

After a student tweeted at Kent State President Beverly Warren, she said this is a situation that should not happen at Kent State.

“We are a respectful community,” she said in the tweet. “In troubling times, it is important that bonds of civility remain strong.”

Kent State University spokesman Eric Mansfield said in an email that Kent State’s campus rock is a venue of free speech and any messages painted on it would remain on the rock until another group repaints it.

“The university’s rock has a long history of being a place of free speech for students, employees, alumni and others to share their voice in a creative way,” he said. “Currently, there is no university policy that regulates the rock, and any message painted on the rock remains there until the next person or group paints over it.”

YSU said in a statement Monday there is no threat to the university.

“Messages were found painted on the rock on the Youngstown State University campus core on Monday, Nov. 23, that were found to be of concern,” it said.

“YSU Police are investigating the situation. The FBI was contacted as a precautionary measure. No threats have been validated at this time. Police are continuing to look into the matter. There is no credible threat to the campus at this time.”

The Youngstown Police Department and the FBI are investigating the incident at YSU. 

 “At this point, there is no specific, credible threat to Youngstown State or the Youngstown area,” said Special Agent Todd Werth, who leads the Youngstown FBI office, according to the Vindicator.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1992 case R.A.V. v. St. Paul that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, which would include the messages painted on YSU’s rock.

Bruce Walton is a senior reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].