If you visit James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia you’re likely to find a colorfully painted rock in the middle of campus. On any given day, the Spirit Rock will be painted as an expression of free speech by the student body. This past weekend, the school’s chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. – a predominantly and historically Black fraternal organization – used the stone to make a memorial for Jeffrey Matthews, Jr., a 22-year-old fraternity member who recently passed away.
Students spent hours painting the stone to remember Matthews, with plans to host a vigil soon after. But the next morning it was found that the previously purple and gold remembrance was now coated in white paint and the words “#TrumpTrain” and “Trump 2016” written in red.
There aren’t technically any restrictions on what can be painted on the rock – as long as it’s respectful – or how long it has to be there before being painted over. The school made that extremely clear in their released statement on the matter.
“The rock serves as an outlet for free expression with the only guiding principle being that those who paint it must respect Madison and respect the rock,” the university said in the statement. “Students or student groups are not able to reserve Spirit Rock nor is there any guarantee as to how long a message can appear on Spirit Rock. Even as of 1 p.m. today, the “Trump 2016” message had been painted over.”
The university did the somewhat predictable thing and chose to stand behind the defense of freedom of speech for all. In their explanation, even if something is rude and done in bad taste, it’s technically still legal. Even if the extremely poor timing appears to be intentional and disrespectful to many, it’s still legal.
This chapter’s memorial to a fallen brother wasn’t up for a full day before it was replaced. The insensitivity of that is understandably more concerning because it involves a mourning process. If the rock had been painted over with a mural of unicorns and mermaids, it would still be frustrating because of how quickly it happened. But the fact that it was replaced with a supporting message of a political figure as divisive as Donald Trump makes it even worse.
“Personally, I was sad –even more sad than I have been– simply because there are those that act without thought,” said Omega Psi Phi Beta Delta Delta Chapter President Gabriel Driver to WHSV.
Fortunately, the stone was re-painted by the chapter and friends. You can see a picture of the finished product below.
Photo Courtesy: Instagram