Vandalism incidents at SUNY Oswego spark free speech debates

OSWEGO, N.Y. – SUNY Oswego finds itself embroiled in a contentious debate involving incidents of defacing campus property with “Free Palestine” signs.

This phrase, with a complex history, has recently become a slogan calling for an end to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, following Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

However, some also consider this phrase as anti-Semitic, calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.

Now, unknown members of the SUNY Oswego community are trying to initiate a pro-Palestinian movement on the campus with graffiti, banners, and posters. 

These acts, which started Feb. 15, have been met with swift resistance from the campus. 

Four days after the initial incident, SUNY Oswego President Peter Nwosu sent a campus-wide email condemning the acts of vandalism and calling these incidents “disturbing.”

“Hate speech, or any speech that instills fear, has no place at SUNY Oswego,” said Nwosu.

However, many students oppose labeling the term “Free Palestine” as hate speech and are asking what language truly falls under freedom of speech. 

First Amendment expert professor Jason Zenor says that the government can’t choose what speech they like and don’t like and have time, place, and manner regulations put in place.

“You can tell people they can’t speak between sun down and sun up. There are certain areas called public forums where you basically have all the speech rights. But there are other places like limited public forums like on a campus,” said Zenor. “In classrooms and dorms, the government has much more ability to regulate that speech.” 

Wesly Rosario, a SUNY Oswego student, said that he does not consider the term as hate speech. 

“I feel like hate speech would be an act of trying to bring something down but it was more of something to uplift,” Rosario said.

"Free Gaza" and "Human rights is not hate speech" written on welcome board

Several incidents of vandalism with “Free Palestine” signs and graffiti have been spotted in SUNY Oswego since Feb. 15. Photo courtesy of: Lorissa Williams.

After widespread criticisms, President Nwosu sent another email clarifying that he didn’t intend to equate “Free Palestine” with hate speech.

“SUNY Oswego upholds the right of every member of the campus community to engage in free speech and civil discourse… to maintain a safe environment for everyone,” said Rosario.

As the Gaza health ministry reports nearly 30,000 deaths in the strip, political science professor Lisa Glidden said that for many students on campus, this is a human rights issue.

“We are training students to be citizens of the world,” said Glidden. “I think it’s really hard for students to look at this and not see it as a human rights issue that needs to be addressed.”

Scott Furlong, the provost and vice president for academic affairs said that the campus is currently trying to ensure student safety while promoting free speech.

“As a university, we have an obligation to engage students in free speech issues and we will continue to do that,” said Furlong.

The tensions between the campus and the ones responsible for the vandalism escalated further on Feb. 21, when the wall outside Tyler Hall was found with pro-Palestinian posters calling for a ceasefire. The posters were removed overnight.

According to an Oswego Now investigation, the student worker who hung the banner at the Marano Campus Center was suspended from his job at the welcome desk.

The President’s office and the University Police have turned down our interview requests and declined to comment on the issue.

— Reporter Meghan Gonyo contributed to this story