Several University of Maryland student organizations are criticizing the university’s interim chalking policy, which limits chalk messages to two areas on campus.

Student groups have chalked messages during on-campus protests across the past six months amid a surge of violence in Israel and Palestine. The increased student activity exposed “gaps and holes” in university policy, according to Patty Perillo, this university’s student affairs vice president. That prompted the university to establish the interim policy.

But members of this university’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter claimed the policy is an attempt to silence their messaging on campus. In a February Instagram post, the chapter alleged that university administration “deliberately censored pro-Palestinian messaging.”

“This is a flagrant intimidation tactic and an abuse of the right to free speech,” the statement read. “We affirm that this administration must stop the deliberate censorship of pro-Palestinian voices who are advocating for human rights and ensure that their voices are protected.”

In a November campuswide email, university president Darryll Pines announced that chalking on campus will be restricted to Hornbake Plaza and the sidewalk outside Stamp Student Union’s southeast entrance. These two designated spaces would be “maintained and refreshed on a regular basis,” the email said.

In a February email to student organization leaders, Stamp director Marsha Guenzler-Stevens issued an update to the interim chalking policy that said all chalked messages in the designated areas will be cleaned every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at about 6 a.m. Facilities Management also now removes chalking on Hornbake Plaza on any day when a student organization has reserved the space for an event.

Universities are allowed to impose restrictions on the “time, place and manner” of free speech on campus as long as its enforcement is content-neutral, according to the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Ward v. Rock Against Racism.

This university may “​​regulate – in a reasonable, viewpoint neutral fashion – where, when, and how speech occurs to ensure the functioning of the campus,” according to this university’s general counsel office website.

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As it’s currently written, the university’s chalking policy is content-neutral, according to Laura Beltz, the policy reform director for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression — an organization that aims to protect free speech on college campuses.

While the policy is a “reasonable” restriction for a public university, Beltz urged caution in evaluating its enforcement.

“It would be important to keep an eye on this and make sure that this policy is actually being applied in a viewpoint-neutral manner going forward,” Beltz said.

In an interview with The Diamondback, Pines said the interim policy is designed to encourage community members to exercise their First Amendment rights in a “lawful way.” The policy also aims to assist the university’s chalk removal process, Pines added.

“An individual could chalk all over the campus, and that would make it extremely difficult for our Facilities Management people to know where that is,” Pines said. “We don’t want a graffitied campus.”

A Students for Justice in Palestine board member, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said they believed the policy was in direct response to the organization’s protests last semester, highlighting a chalk message written at the organization’s Nov. 9 walkout and sit-in that read “Holocaust 2.0.” The message was “misinterpreted,” the student added.

UMPD began an investigation into “hateful, antisemitic” sentiments shortly after the Nov. 9 event.

Matt Foos, a Students for Justice in Palestine member, said the organization monitors and regulates its chalking messages and “disavowed” the hateful messaging last semester.

Foos, a junior philosophy and physics major, said the chalking policy is “unfair” and seems to target students who support Palestine on campus. The chalking policy mirrors others applied to Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at neighboring universities, Foos said.

Daniela Colombi, another Students for Justice in Palestine member, said the notion of having a “free speech zone” on campus signifies that free speech is being limited.

“I think immediately they knew that they were doing it to repress us,” Colombi, a sophomore physics major, said. “It’s very clear that they’re creating these policies in response to effective tactics that we’re using.”

Perillo told The Diamondback in February that she reached out to Students for Justice in Palestine leaders, members of the university’s student affairs division, facilities management and University of Maryland Police after Students for Justice in Palestine’s Instagram post criticizing the policy to evaluate the university’s response.

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After these discussions, Perillo said she realized the importance of explicitly communicating with students about the university’s “regular” chalk cleaning in designated areas.

Chalk messages are also erased if they pose an “imminent threat” to the campus community, Perillo told The Diamondback.

“It’s a team of people that will look at it and make decisions about whether or not it’s just awful, mean, hateful speech, which we have to keep, or if it’s crossed a line, and whether it’s an imminent threat to a group or individual that requires us to act,” Perillo said.

The team that makes those decisions often includes people from Stamp Student Union and the university’s legal counsel office, Perillo added.

The cleaning schedule has also drawn criticism from activists. Hershel Barnstein, the president of this university’s Jewish Voice for Peace chapter, highlighted that the schedule prevents organizations from chalking the night before a demonstration.

The timing of the updated policy’s introduction was “peculiar” after many organizations used Hornbake Plaza last semester to chalk, Barnstein, a senior biology major, added.

Colombi added that the updated chalk erasing schedule aligns with Students for Justice in Palestine’s experience with chalking this semester.

She discussed an incident earlier this semester where several students chalked messages in support of Palestine on Hornbake Plaza at about 11 p.m. and the chalk was erased by 6 a.m. the next day.

“They are covering their ass,” Colombi said. “[This] is very frustrating and frankly offensive.”

The new chalking restrictions will also impact other student organizations on campus, including the university’s Bitcamp hackathon, according to Amrit Magesh, the hackathon’s marketing director.

Chalking is an important marketing tool for Bitcamp, Magesh said, but the new policy “definitely detracts” from its efforts.

Magesh, a junior computer science major, added that the restrictions ultimately limit messages and marketing from student organizations across campus.

“I’m not sure how much this really prevents hate speech from proliferating. I really think it just confines it,” Magesh said. “At the end of the day, it is at the cost of a lot of other messages.”