UWL College Republicans allege free speech muzzling after anti-mask messages erased

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Members of the UW-La Crosse College Republicans say their free speech was violated after their chalk art protesting mask mandates was erased this week.

Chalking is a longstanding tradition at UWL, used to advertise events and make political statements. Group members felt that taking to the sidewalk was a good way to voice their objections to the mask policy.

“I don’t want them to compel my speech and make me wear a mask. I’m just not OK with it,” said Issaac Ozolins, chairman of the College Republicans.

“The best way to do that is exercise our constitutional right of chalking, which is something a lot of organizations do here at UWL,” said Nick Schultz,a College Republicans member.

The university’s mask requirement for this school year was announced on Aug. 26 and has been in place ever since. Chancellor Joe Gow said he supports the students’ right to protest.

“We consider our campus a complete free speech zone,” Gow said. “I understand that — I do hear those voices, but we think it’s the safest thing to do right now.”

Some of the messages club members wrote included phrases such as, “My body, my choice.” Club members say their messaging followed the university’s protest guidelines.

“At the door we had ‘mask-free zone,’ kind of playing on the fact that people have a choice, you can resist,” Ozolins said.

Shortly after club members wrote their messages across campus on Tuesday evening, they saw other students pouring water on the chalk.

“Erasing it away just makes it seem like we can’t progress our issues here at the university,” Ozolins said.

Ozolins and Schultz said some club members saw university staff, in addition to students, cleaning up the messaging, but Gow said university staff were not involved.

Gow is open to having a conversation with those students and discussing their options.

“If I were to sit down with them and be like, ‘Alright, I know what you don’t like about masking…’ what are your alternatives that we could consider?” Gow said.

The students are considering looking into legal action, and Schultz said he believes the university should investigate and punish students who are violating free speech.

Schultz said he raised the club’s free speech concerns at a student senate meeting on Wednesday but felt that the student and faculty senates dismissed him.

Jared Zwettler, a member of the student association, told News 8 Now in an email that Schultz’s comments were heard in accordance with its standard practices.

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