HYDE PARK — University of Chicago Police on Thursday caught a man putting up racist posters on campus and let him go, but the university will bar him from campus and is now looking to press charges.
At 9:20 p.m. Thursday, university police reported catching the man posting posters promoting a race war and anti-Semitism near Crerar Library at 5730 S. Ellis Ave. They warned him that he was trespassing and would be arrested if found on campus again, according to police reports.
Students said they tore down the posters that read “Black Lives Don’t Matter” and others with anti-Semitic epithets around the main quadrangle Thursday night.
Chase Woods, a fourth-year public policy student at the university, said he found about eight of the posters Thursday night before seeing three university police officers questioning a man in his mid- to late-20s wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a bandana over his face.
Woods said as he gave the officers the posters he had found, he saw similar fliers and a can of spray paint sticking out of the man’s bag.
“I pointed to him and said, ‘You’re lucky to have these people around,’ and he laughed this maniacal laugh,” Woods said. “He seemed happy to have gotten a reaction from the campus community.”
On Saturday, university Provost Daniel Diermeier and Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen sent a letter to students and faculty saying the university will bar the man from campus and are now looking to press charges.
"On Thursday night there was an incident on campus involving the placement of posters with disturbing and intimidating messages, which caused damage to University property," Diermeier and Rasmussen wrote. “The university is working with the state’s attorney’s office to determine what charges can be brought, and we support taking action to the fullest extent of the law.”
They said the university is working to prevent such posters from being put up on campus in the future and continuing to build a non-threatening, non-exclusionary campus environment.
White nationalist and neo-Nazi posters have been found on campus three times since December and organizations on campus are now questioning what the university administration will do about discouraging racism on campus.
Lucy Pick, the director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and Michael Dawson, the director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the university said an offensive poster was posted on the door to their offices.
In an alert they sent to followers, they said police "apprehended a man who was carrying flyers and spray paint, and whose face was concealed by a bandana."
They questioned why the administration was not sending out safety alerts about such incidents and asked why the university did not circulate photos of the people that put up the posters so they can be identified if they return. They said releasing the man was "unacceptable."
“Has the administration’s recent emphasis on ‘freedom of speech’ encouraged a climate in which such physical manifestations of hate speech have become more common and are perceived to be acceptable?” Dawson and Pick asked.
In August, university Dean of Students Jay Ellison came out forcefully for freedom of speech on campus in a letter to incoming freshman, saying the university would not condone intellectual “safe spaces” or trigger warnings. It was criticized on campus for being insensitive to the ways race and sexuality are discussed and protected on campus.
Since then, the campus has been plastered with white nationalist and neo-Nazi posters three times and the administration has been put in the position of defending its commitment to providing a public platform for all types of speakers — including those with racist or anti-Semitic messages.
On Feb. 21, university President Robert Zimmer told the Wall Street Journal the university would allow people such as alumni and white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak on campus if invited by students.
“Faculty and students invite all sorts of people, and we don’t restrict who they invite,” Zimmer said. “I don’t invite people. We offer no restrictions to student groups and faculty. What they want to do is hear, discuss and potentially argue with the people they invite.”
Pick, Dawson and others have questioned whether this extreme openness to speech, including overtly racist speakers, undermines the social mores of the university.
“My hope is given these events, the university would have a clear statement to say hate speech is clearly intolerable,” Woods said. “It doesn’t feel like enough because there’s a feeling among these groups that their ideas could come to life here.”
It does put the university in a tricky situation. The university built its reputation by hiring Jewish, black and immigrant intellectuals that were barred from working at other prestigious universities.
It also comes at a time of heightened worry in the surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood. The Hyde Park Jewish Community Center has received two bomb threats in the last three weeks.