Fact check: Is erasing chalk messages on UW campuses prohibited?

The bounds of free speech continue to challenge University of Wisconsin System campuses.

A neo-Nazi group briefly appeared on campus during a march in Madison in November. They were within their First Amendment rights, though police and UW-Madison condemned their presence.

Their march came after antisemitic chalk messages were scrawled at UW-La Crosse and UW-Madison in the last year.

Graffiti and chalk messages have also been left to protest controversial speakers hosted on the flagship campus, including conservative commentators Matt Walshand Ben Shapiro.

And Republican lawmakers continue to focus on survey results that found more than half of UW System students choose not to express their views on controversial issues.

On Nov. 7, 2023, the state Assembly took up bills drafted by Republicans based on their concerns about free speech on University of Wisconsin System campuses.

But during floor debate, Rep. Jodi Emerson, a Democrat from Eau Claire, questioned “if free speech is welcome by everyone in this building.”

She claimed she’s seen numerous lawmakers deliberately pour water or wipe their feet over chalk messages left around the Capitol square.

“I want you to think about if you were a student, and this block was a college campus, if you would be punished for some of the actions that you do on a daily basis,” she said.

We’re not fact-checking whether lawmakers have erased chalk messages, but what she said next caught our attention.

“Did you know that on most campuses, you cannot destroy a chalked message unless you were the one that wrote it?” Emerson said. “You can’t dump water on it, you can’t even walk over it.”

What do university policies say about who can erase those messages, and what constitutes removing them?

Let’s take a look.

Campus policies say chalk messages cannot be tampered

When asked for backup for the claim, Emerson emailed links to campus webpages that describe policies on free speech and chalking.

One link, to a page titled “Free Expression at UW-Madison,” includes an FAQ section that asks: “Can I erase or chalk over messages that I find offensive?”

The answer is that chalking an additional message next to the original statement is allowed, but “only the organization that created the chalking may erase it unless it violates university policy.”

UW-Madison’s chalk policy describes some restrictions. Aerosol, paint or oil-based chalk is not allowed, and creating messages on vertical spaces, bridges, buildings and other areas is prohibited.

So, Emerson is correct, at least for UW-Madison. Do other campuses in the system have similar policies?

Emerson also referenced UW-Green Bay’s webpage on chalking, which also states that “it is illegal to tamper with another organization’s or office’s chalking.”

And while she didn’t cite UW-Oshkosh specifically, their policy says that “chalking may not be tampered with or written over in an attempt to deface chalked messages and purposes.”

So, Emerson is on point with that part of her claim. Only the person – or group – who chalked the message is allowed to erase it.

Policies on erasing chalk haven’t been enforced

Emerson also included this in her claim: “You can’t dump water on it, you can’t even walk over it.”

We’ll start by noting that Emerson, in other parts of her speech, was talking about someone who intentionally drags their feet over a message to make it unreadable. She emphasized that to us as well.

So, even if that wording wasn’t articulated well, we think it is clear she meant erasing or destroying a chalked message, not just stepping over it.

None of the policies she shared with PolitiFact Wisconsin address what counts as erasing the chalk.

When we asked how the UW-Madison Police Department enforces the policy and would interpret those situations, spokesman Mark Lovicott looped in other members of UW-Madison’s communications team.

The university “encourages students and other members of the community to respect the free expression rights of one another and not to remove or erase messages chalked by others,” university spokesman John Lucas wrote.

“However, in practice, this is not enforced by campus or UWPD,” he said.

Similarly, UW-Oshkosh Police Chief Chris Tarmann “does not remember a time when they were asked to enforce the policy,” university spokeswoman Peggy Breister said in an email.

UW-Green Bay’s policy “does not contain grounds for enforcement, however if anyone were to violate this policy they may be subject to discipline,” Christopher Paquet, assistant vice chancellor of policy and compliance, said in an email.

That could include action brought under freedom of expression policies, “depending on the nature of the chalking and the perceived intent of the student alleged to have damaged the chalking,” he said.

Paquet said campus police reviewed past incidents and “no action of enforcement was specifically noted within the last several years, nor was there any recollection of this being an issue that needed to be addressed.”

So while lawmakers’ actions may be prohibited under campus policies, it seems unlikely that campuses are actively enforcing those policies and would punish their actions, as Emerson alluded to.

Our ruling

Emerson said that “on most campuses, you cannot destroy a chalked message unless you were the one that wrote it. You can’t dump water on it, you can’t even walk over it.”

Policies from UW-Madison, UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh show the first part of the claim is on target.

She goes awry a bit when putting it in the context of punishment. Indications are the policies aren’t enforced in practice, and do not lay out specific penalties for those who tamper with messages.

Still, UW-Green Bay indicated that discipline could be doled out. And, the lack of violations in the past doesn’t mean punishment on other campuses in the future is out of the question.

We rate her claim Mostly True, which means “the statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.”

Source: Fact check: Is erasing chalk messages on UW campuses prohibited?

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