BOONE — Several groups have responded to an anonymously spray-painted Nazi symbol in one of Appalachian State University’s free expression tunnels that was discovered on Sept. 30.
The picture depicted on the wall replicated a Nazi flag with writing that said both “heil Hitler” as well as “the Holocaust was a good thing.” Various reports state that the school’s international Jewish fraternity — Alpha Epsilon Pi — discovered the imagery and subsequently painted over it.
ASU spokesperson Megan Hayes said the university investigated the incident, but the university does not know who painted the images.
“Incidents like these are not always perpetrated by members of the campus community,” Hayes said.
Appalachian’s Student Government Association released an official statement the following day. SGA’s Director of Social Sustainability Gaby Romero said in the statement that the two tunnels under Rivers Street were officially designated as free expression tunnels in 2009.
Romero stated that the tunnels have served as a place for students to express their artistic talents and “freely communicate.” She said the majority of the expressions uphold the spirit of the tunnels as an inclusive and positive space.
“It is not intended to cultivate a culture of hate — targeting students or individuals because of their identity, culture, profession or expression,” Romero said in the statement.
ASU’s policy 405.1 addresses the rules regarding tunnel painting. The policy states that the primary purpose of the tunnels is to provide a safe passage across Rivers Street, with the use of the walls/ceilings as a venue for communication as a secondary function.
“The university generally will not regulate or censor the content of the expression painted in the tunnels,” according to the policy. “Nonetheless, students should understand that some forms of expression (e.g., obscenity, defamation, fighting words, harassment), because of their ‘nonspeech’ elements, are not constitutionally protected and may in fact be ‘constitutionally proscribable.’”
In Romero’s statement, she said that as a public university, ASU is committed to protecting freedom of speech. Additionally, she stated that as members of the Appalachian community and contributors to campus culture, SGA is devoted to making sure all people are welcomed and accepted on campus.
“We as both the Milbourne-Kelly administration and on behalf of the student body do not condone hateful expressions of any kind on this campus,” Romero said in the statement. “We are here to stand for and promote inclusion and positivity.”
Chancellor Sheri Everts shared a statement to students noting it is an unfortunate reality that college campuses frequently must deal with incidents such as this one. She said student safety is the university’s top priority.
“It is important to know we are very intentional about communications in order not to lend legitimacy and publicity to acts or speech that might intensify,” Everts said in the statement. “College campuses are often targets for outside groups that seek a broader venue.”
The university investigates every report as well as everything it discovers “whether reported or not,” Everts said. She stated that ASU activates response teams that consider the most appropriate response to each situation with thoughtful consideration of how best to protect and help its students.
In Everts’ newsletter posted on Oct. 2, she explained the response process the university goes through when situations arise. She stated that the university investigates the issue, puts together a response team, evaluates risk to the community, reaches out immediately to find and assist students who might be in need of support and communicates the issue through small meetings, one-on-one conversations and responses to inquiries with broader communications made as necessary.
“As we strive for inclusive excellence of all members of Appalachian’s community, the unfortunate reality is our university regularly manages instances of hatred, bigotry and ignorance that attempt to stoke fear and anxiety and divide and factionalize our community,” Everts said in the newsletter.
North Carolina Hillel — the foundation for Jewish campus life for colleges/ universities in the state — released a statement the day of the incident stating it was “deeply disturbed” about the incident.
“These words and images are incredibly painful and offensive to Jews and non-Jews alike, denigrating the memory of six million Jews and millions of other victims of the Nazis and have no place on campus or anywhere in society,” the organization said in its statement.
The university’s Center for Judaic, Holocaust and Peace Studies released a statement on Oct. 1 that said “Silence and complacency are not options.”
The center’s director, Thomas Pegelow Kaplan, released the statement on behalf the center. Kaplan charged people with taking the following three steps: to identify incidences such as this as “hate speech;” educate others about the racism, anti-Semitism and past/present hate groups; and creating a caring and supportive environment at ASU.