Graffiti or freedom of speech? SUU students wash off chalk from wall after complaints

CEDAR CITY — A group of university students say they were recently compelled to wash off a wall covered with messages they’d written in chalk due to complaints from the public.

L-R: Southern Utah University students Corrine Lassen, Paige Hansen and Luke Marshall in front of a wall they decorated with chalk messages, Cedar City, Utah, Oct. 17, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Roommates Paige Hansen, Corrine Lassen and Karyn Holsten are students at Southern Utah University renting a home near 1100 West and 400 South in Cedar City. The trio, along with Hansen’s boyfriend, Luke Marshall, who is also an SUU student, said they decided in late September to start adding writing to the red cinder block wall that runs along the sidewalk on the east edge of the property.

“While we were doing it, somebody called the cops,” Hansen told Cedar City News. “They showed up and they were like, ‘Well, we don’t really see anything wrong, nothing vulgar. You just might want to get permission.’”

Marshall said they brought up freedom of speech to the police.

“They agreed with us,” Marshall said, “and told us that we needed to be careful to not have attacking language and anything political.”

At least one person who complained had apparently done so because they believed the messages were campaigning for a particular political group, Marshall said.

“We wrote different things on the wall that some of us had seen on social media and such,” he said. “I’m from Colorado and I had seen these signs in people’s front yards, and (they) basically said what I drew on the wall – that we believe that women’s rights are human rights, that water is life, science is real and life matters.”

Other messages on the wall included slogans such as “Choose Love Today,” “SOS,” “All Lives Matter” and “Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere,” and a multicolored chalk rainbow flag had the word “Pride” along the top and side. There was also an announcement about a planned climate change protest at SUU library, which happened last month.

A Southern Utah University student writes a message with chalk on wall, Cedar City, Utah, October 2019 | Photo courtesy of Paige Hansen

The police left the scene shortly after their initial visit, Hansen said, leaving her and her friends wondering who had complained and why they wouldn’t just ask them about what they were doing.

“Why wouldn’t someone just talk to us?” Hansen said.

Not long after the climate march, the students were contacted by university officials regarding the writing on the wall.

Hansen said she ended up speaking with an official in SUU student affairs about the situation.

“He said he had gotten a lot of complaints from (city) council members and from neighbors that it was graffiti. That’s what they kept saying, that it’s graffiti all over the wall and that they wanted the school to be responsible for power washing,” Hansen said. “And so I called and talked to him and he just told me to get permission from my landlords.”

The students acknowledged that they had not obtained such permission and had just assumed it was okay to write on the wall because, Lassen said, a child had previously marked it with some chalk drawings that were left on the surface and “nobody was bothered by that.”

However, Hansen said they unknowingly broke their lease, “because it said we weren’t supposed to mark it,” Hansen said.

The newly washed-off wall shortly after Southern Utah University students had removed the messages written on it in chalk, Cedar City, Utah, Oct. 18, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“And we’re like, ‘OK, sorry. We didn’t know,’” Hansen said, referring to their discussion with the landlords. “They were really good to us.”

A week or so later, however, the students said they were told by the owners that the chalk would have to come off.

Marshall said they were told it would have to be taken down by last Friday at 5 p.m. or the management company would pay someone to clean the wall and charge the students.

As requested, the students washed the chalk off the wall themselves Friday, leaving it a clean slate.

Cedar City News contacted City Councilman Paul Cozzens, who said that when he first mentioned the wall during a recent council meeting, he was merely passing along a concern shared by a resident, who’d texted him a couple photos of the messages on the wall.

“Without really deciphering what it said, I simply asked whether this was something we wanted to get cleaned up,” Cozzens said, noting that sidewalk chalk washes off easily. “It’s not the message that concerned me, but graffiti breeds graffiti, and I’m not sure we want that all over town.”

Although the students said they were “bummed” about having to remove the chalk, they were hopeful that the messages on the wall will continue to reach people in Cedar City.

“We hope that this wall sparks conversation in the community and inspires change, because everyone has a voice, and you can be heard,” Marshall said, adding that many people have been supportive of the wall.

A new wall is decorated with messages written in chalk by Southern Utah University students, Cedar City, Utah, Oct. 19, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the chalk had been removed, Hansen contacted Cedar City News to say that another homeowner in town had agreed to allow the students to decorate a cinder block wall on her property with chalk.

“We have a new canvas!” Hansen said, noting that she and her roommates have already started decorating the new wall, which is located at about 1000 West and faces Industrial Road to the north. The reborn version already features a brightly colored rainbow flag with the words “Love is a Terrible Thing to Hate,” along with symbols representing women’s rights and a plea to conserve water.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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