Outrage is mounting in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee after a 26-year-old student at the school protested an event celebrating Israeli Independence Day with signs displaying swastikas and calls for Jewish students to be gassed, speech the university says is protected and cannot be stopped.
Kristian Gresham, reported to be "a 26-year-old man with a documented history of aggressive, racist, and criminal behavior, demonstrated last week before a group of Jewish and pro-Israel students while holding signs that featured swastikas and a call to gas Jewish students," according to an online petition condemning the display.
Gresham's actions—the latest in a spate of anti-Semitic incidents on U.S. college campuses—have sparked concerns for the safety of the Jewish community at UWM, one of the most diverse campuses in the state, and put the school's administration in the position of defending Gresham's right to free speech, even if that speech is threatening to Jews.
University Chancellor Mark Mone has already disseminated at least two formal letters on the incident, which has sparked calls for the school to expel Gresham. Mone, in his statements, condemns the hateful rhetoric but insists that the university has a responsibility to support free speech.
"Many of you have expressed concern that my last campus message—which came in response to a student carrying a sign with a swastika on it during an Israeli Independence Day event on our Milwaukee campus last Monday—inadequately addressed the significant harm that it caused," Mone wrote in May 14 communication. "Please know I have heard you and acknowledge my message did not fully capture or reflect how deeply saddened, frustrated and angry I am personally, as a member of this community, that anyone would inflict such pain and fear on our Panther family. I am sorry."
This followed a May 7 message from Money defending Gersham's right to free speech, an argument that roiled tensions on campus and prompted the school to later recalibrate its response.
"Under the First Amendment, displaying offensive symbols, such as a swastika, to a general audience in a public space is protected akin to speech," Mone wrote in the May 7 communication. "Nevertheless, please know that we emphatically renounce such hateful symbols and do not support or condone any viewpoint that is hurtful, harmful or disparaging."
"We are a large, urban public university that will always be a forum for the free exchange of ideas—even when those ideas are hateful or repugnant and challenge our thinking in dreadfully unsettling ways," Mone wrote.
In the days between Mone's first and second communications, many at the university condemned his initial response and have called Gresham, the student in question, to be expelled.
Gresham is reported to have had run-ins with the law, "including arrests for graffiti and ‘obstructing an officer,'" according to the online petition calling for his expulsion, which is being backed by pro-Israel groups working to fight the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS, which wages economic warfare on Israel. "He even served time in jail and the county house of corrections."
Criminal records independently viewed by the Washington Free Beacon corroborate these claims about Gresham. There have been at least seven separate incidents dating back to 2013 and as recent as 2016, according to the criminal records.
A university spokesperson would not comment on whether Gresham is facing repercussions for his anti-Jewish protest, telling the Free Beacon the school is in the tricky position of balancing free speech rights with the safety of Jewish and pro-Israel students on campus.
"We have had a number of controversial speakers on our campus over the past few years, and it is always very challenging because as a public university, we must respect their right to free speech," the spokesman said. "At the same time, this is speech that runs counter to the university's core values of diversity and inclusion and that members of campus community find offensive."
BDS Report, the organization sponsoring a petition to see Gresham expelled, argued that the protest violated the university's code of conduct and its not a protected form of speech
"What Kristian Gresham did was not just an expression of speech," the group wrote in its petition. "He threatened the safety and education of his fellow students. "‘Gas the Jews'" is not protected free speech. It's incitement of violence against the Jewish community on campus."
"Kristian's actions also violated the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Code of Conduct Policy 18.11: ‘No person may engage in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, unreasonably loud or otherwise disorderly conduct under circumstances in which the conduct to cause or provoke a disturbance, in university buildings or on university lands.'"
The petition has garnered more than 800 signatures since its launch.