University of West Georgia junior Lans Carcioppolo started a debate over free expression and transgender rights when he posted on Facebook these photos of himself pulling down unofficial gender-neutral signs on the campus library bathroom doors.

Viral post challenges free speech on Georgia campus

Word that he was being summoned to the dean’s office sent University of West Georgia junior Lans Carcioppolo to his Facebook page.

“I’m tired of liberal campuses shutting down a conservative agenda. This safe space is a sham,” he said in a Facebook Live video. “That is not how you learn. Because I’m a conservative does not make me wrong. Because you are a liberal does not make you wrong. We have two different opinions. We’re Americans. That is our right.”

What landed Carcioppolo in hot water earlier this month were self-posted photos of himself tearing down unofficial signs declaring some of library bathrooms on campus “liberated” from the “gender binary.” The video went viral and caught the attention of campus administrators.

“It was very cordial,” Carcioppolo told me about his meeting with the dean. “They listened to my side of the story.”

(For the record, I did my undergraduate studies at West Georgia and I’m glad to hear that a trip to the dean’s office is cordial these days.)

Was Carcioppolo’s social post threatening? Or an act of political speech? Do LGBT students at West Georgia have a right to a non-threatening environment? Do social conservatives have more or less of a voice on campus? The episode has raised interesting points about the limits of free speech, “safe spaces” and whether liberal and conservative ideologies have equal representation on campus.

Carcioppolo said he doesn’t think conservatives generally have equal status at West Georgia or most college campuses. Originally a Marco Rubio supporter, Carcioppolo has come around to back Republican nominee Donald Trump, but it’s not without a cost, he said.

“I’ve been called a racist more times this year than at any time in my life,” he said. Despite the talk on college campuses about “safe spaces” and respect for diverse viewpoints, Carcioppolo said he doesn’t feel like his politics have a voice.

He does have Facebook, however, where Carcioppolo shared his thoughts on the process.

“Was I little aggressive in pulling down the signs? Yeah, maybe. Just a little bit,” he said, holding his thumb and index finger an inch or so apart. But he was pointedly unapologetic.

Around the same time Carcioppolo was getting in dutch for pulling down the fliers, another student was complaining to school administrators that a fraternity was using Trump’s likeness and the slogan “Make Greek Life Great Again” on T-shirts.

“I am more than disappointed with the advisers … for approving such a distasteful shirt,” the student said in an email to administrators she later posted to Twitter. “It is very discouraging to attend a university that prides (itself) on being diverse and inclusive when micro-aggressions such as these take place on our campus constantly.”

“Have you seen the pro Trump guy who tore down temporary gender neutral signs in the library & threatened trans folks?” Lambda at West Georgia, a LGBT student organization, tweeted back.

Trans students say they felt threatened

For his part, Carcioppolo says he never threatened anyone. His original social post is gone, but Shelby Hearn, president of Lambda at West Georgia, said the comments following Carcioppolo’s post were disturbing.

“There were definitely insinuated threats against trans people,” she said.

“We’ve had trans people tell us they were threatened (by the post),” added Lambda member Kaleigh Ingram, who manages the organization’s social media channels.

University spokesman Gary Leftwich said, “After determining the student’s conduct was inappropriate, Student Affairs met with him, warning against similar actions.”

Hearn said she and her group are constantly told that the campus administration takes a neutral position on political topics. But the result, she said, is hardly neutral if you are marginalized as a result of passive but hostile environment.

“Our problem is less with Lans … than with the fact that he felt entitled to do that,” Hearn said. Everybody should feel safe on campus, Ingram added. “That’s neutral.”

Carcioppolo’s contention that his politics make him a marginalized student does not convince Hearn and Ingram. There is plenty of support for conservatives on campus, and the numerous online attaboys he received after posting the photo are proof.

Hearn and Ingram said the only “safe spaces” for LGBT students on campus are in private offices with select faculty who have undergone training to offer support. The idea that conservatives cannot freely express themselves at West Georgia is fantasy, they said.

Echos of controversy at Emory

Still, the example set earlier this year at Emory gives one pause. In March, students organized a protest against “micro-agression” when they awoke to discover someone had written “Trump 2016” in chalk on sidewalks around campus. The image of students so coddled that even the candidate’s name was considered an injury drew national attention.

At West Georgia, the bathrooms in the library have since received permanent signs making them officially non-gender, part of a longer-term plan on campus addressing transgender needs.

According to university officials, all “single-occupant” restrooms are to be redesignated as gender neutral. A spokesman for the University System of Georgia said how to label bathrooms is being handled at the campus level.

Carcioppolo is content that he made his point. He still disagrees, but he is OK with the school’s official signs.

“I’m just one student out of 14,000,” he said.

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