When two Bakersfield College M.E.Ch.A. and Native American students wrote provocative chalk slogans on Columbus Day in 2011, school officials labeled the act as vandalism and students were warned consequences would follow if it happened again.
BC history professor Matthew Garrett did not think that was vandalism — which requires damage and malice — because chalk can be sprayed off with water, and the act itself was free speech. Others did not agree.
The following year, chalk messages reappeared on campus, but there was no action taken.
Fast-forward to April, when half a dozen stickers were applied to campus posters, elevators and doorknobs promoting messages such as "Smash Cultural Marxism," "Never Apologize for Being White" and "Feminism is Cancer."
This time, the campus acted differently. The act was designated as a hate crime, a public promise made of prosecution "to the fullest extent of the law" and college stickers were placed stating inappropriate comments would not be tolerated.
Garrett did not think that was fair because it was a suppression of the First Amendment.
What followed on campus was a debate over whether these stickers were an example of free speech, hate speech or vandalism. The debate resurfaced Thursday night with a standing-room-only crowd that attended Garrett's talk on the First Amendment and the origins of censorship on BC's campus.
Garrett pointed there were three factors that played a role in how the campus responded to the stickers: intellectual biases, emotional reasoning and logical fallacies.
"Certain folks with certain political and social and intellectual views interpreted things in certain ways," he said.
A local activist sent out an email stating the act was hate speech because stickers were placed near people of color — one on a Jess Nieto Memorial Conference poster, which celebrates the life of the Chicano activist — and they came from the Hundred-Handers group.
Garrett looked at the group's Twitter group and found out of 57 stickers, 37 stickers were racially defensive (meaning "don't pick on white people") four were racially aggressive (or "we don't like those people of color") and 16 were non-race related (with messages such as "Love your nation" and "Stand your ground").
"Are those racist by association? Are those slogans racist?" he asked. "We can look at context ... it does matter, but it shouldn't be the driving definition of what's going on. The actual content should be our focus."
He then applied a similar analysis with M.E.Ch.A.'s documents and said they are the "most racist and disgusting documents on this campus. They talk about expending the gabachos and gringos and making a race-based nation of brown people." He added, however, that BC's M.E.Ch.A. students are not racist and the documents were changed recently.
Sophomore journalism major Jacqueline Gutierrez said the stickers she noticed on campus last year were offensive to her and several of her peers.
"I didn't like that they were up," she said. "One of them said 'Feminism is cancer' and I found that offensive."
In order for a similar situation to have a different outcome in the future, Garrett said the college should recommit to free speech.
"Let's grow. Let's break out of our little bubble and experience and learn and be better than we were," he said. "The most important diversity is not gender or race. It is intellectual diversity."