By Sarah Nicell || News Editor
Spearheaded by the Day of Dialogue and Inclusion Week Committee, Franklin & Marshall College held its very first Inclusion Week, celebrating “The Intersectionality of Our Identities”. On October 20th, Diplomatic Congress—F&M’s central student government—hosted “Diplomatic Discourse: A History of the Protest Tree and Intersectional Identities,” a student-faculty panel that discussed the historical implications of the Protest Tree and goals for its future. The panel consisted of five members: Christopher Raab, the Associate Librarian for Archive and Special Collections; Gretchel Hathaway, Vice President of DEI; Kyle Lanzilotti ‘23; Taylor Carter ‘24; and Makai Bryan ‘24.
The event began with a brief presentation regarding the historical background of the Protest Tree, featuring images and writing clips from the 1960s into the 2000s. One historic document seeming to categorize F&M’s characteristics alphabetically (and satirically) describes, “P is for Protest Tree, organ of freedom, / Where protests are published for students to read em. / Used and perused by professors and students / (Some with abandon and others with prudence) / Prolifically posted, in prose and in verse, / Their protests and paeans oft illicit a curse. / While freedom of speech is a right we all cherish, / At Franklin & Marshall, it’s Publish and Perish.”
Here it seems that the Protest Tree’s initial use was not so different from today, similarly accompanied by a warning regarding its implications. An old welcome letter to freshmen notes, “the Protest Tree… which ‘often carries banners asking for justice or speaking of the concerns of the students which, if at all critical of the administration, must be torn down immediately by members of said administration or their cronies.” The censorship of college criticism was clearly a known force, just as it is known today in 2022.
A bulletin board was previously positioned just behind the tree for student postings (not limited to student grievances), which led panelists to hypothesize that postings on the Protest Tree were merely overflow. In its early years, the tree was used for brief announcements (like congratulations) and to announce fraternity parties to the general public (“Party: Kappa Sigma, Saturday Night, 8:30 PM”). It was not until the ‘70s that the Protest Tree became the primary space for denouncements of the college. The tree has also been known to showcase memorials or commemorations following tragedies, such as in 2001 after 9/11 when a red, white, and blue ribbon was tied around the trunk in a bow.
“I’ve been at F&M for 20 years now,” said Christopher Raab during the Q/A portion of the event. “I can say over the years the tree has had a significant role on campus, but it is not nearly as prominent as it was in the 1960s and early 1970s in discussing grievances.” As a historian, he explains that the Protest Tree is more of a “continuing tradition” than something that has grown stronger, more impactful, or more useful over time.
“Misuse” of the Protest Tree was also discussed, most notably in the form of 2021’s Yik Yak comments posted on the tree, which led to subsequent protests and continued efforts by DEI to ameliorate campus frustration, fear, ignorance, and panic regarding racism, antisemitism, and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment. Gretchel Hathaway emphasized that after investigation, it seemed very unlikely that the individuals who made the discriminatory Yik Yak comments were F&M students.
The remainder of the event focused on a Q/A with all five members of the discourse panel, which began with the following question: How has the protest tree impacted your campus experience?
“I think the protest tree has been connected to a lot of negative connotations, but it has been a vessel for diplomatic discourse,” said Makai Bryan, with ‘negative connotations’ stemming from a previous conversation regarding Yik Yak. “I remember when I first came to F&M when I heard there was a Protest Tree. I was really excited. You walk past it every day, and you always look at it. Thankfully this year there haven’t been too many postings, which to me is a good thing because it means there’s nothing too big to protest on campus.”
Taylor Carter answered that there could have been a more productive resolution to the Yik Yak situation, but presently, she yearns for more international commentary. “There not being any postings is a good thing for the school,” she said. “But it would be good for the world to see more postings about world issues, like the situation in Iran.”
As for Gretchel’s experience with the tree, there are “two things that always troubled” her. The first is her membership in the “tree-hugger” generation, believing that using a tree for postings with nails, pins, and other sharp objects is counterproductive to progress. Her second and more pressing issue with the Protest Tree surrounded anonymity.
“Why do we need spaces for anonymity? What is the fear there?” said Gretchel. “Some posts are not from F&M students. If you have something to say, bring it forward. Let’s figure it out. Don’t post anonymously on the tree and expect action.”
This comment led to a broader conversation regarding anonymity, as Christopher provided some historical context on the subject. “When I look in the historical record, in the 60s and 70s, people did sign their names or used pseudonyms, which is interesting. Most of it was satirical or humorous.”
The student panelists immediately defended the right to remain anonymous, arguing that students may flock to the Protest Tree when they have no place to go or do not know which F&M institutions will be able to help them with their problems.
“I believe it is a powerful thing,” said Makai. “Whether it is positive or negative, when you give someone the space to post anonymously, you allow them to pass the torch onto someone [who reads it] to take action.”
Some expressed the need for the power to choose whether postings have names attached. “Why can’t we have anonymous postings and named postings?” asked Taylor. “If someone wants to say their name, they can.”
Kyle felt that anonymity makes it “harder to help a person as a community,” which seems to be a shared sentiment among administrators. How an individual may be aided in cases of Title IX, racism, prejudice, work inequities, etc. is unclear when there is no signage to follow up on.
Other important topics included whether the Protest Tree should remain on campus—to which the unanimous sentiment was yes, but let’s clarify its meaning to us—as well as whether the Protest Tree does more harm than good.
“I would say [it does] no more harm than any other social media platform,” said Kyle. “If we took away the protest tree, we would probably see [more harmful things] on social media.”
This argument is supported by the previous existence of the Instagram account @protesttreeproject, which was birthed in 2020 for F&M students who were virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This outlet resulted in both online trolling, hate speech, and mental exhaustion for the account’s owners, as they noted in an interview with The College Reporter when the platform was still active: “We have received an immense amount of negative comments and messages from followers… We think that a lot of people who are sending in these comments forget that we are their peers and are under the same stress and pressure they experience. On top of all that work we are also trying to amplify voices when we receive 20+ submissions every day.”
Virtualizing the Protest Tree resulted in an enormous uptick in college grievances that were potentially triggering and deeply problematic in the eyes of many students. However, others argue that having an online presence allows for more accessibility and the ability to respond to complaints via comment sections and repost criticisms that they agree with.
While Taylor described the tree as somewhat harmful in terms of instilling fear, discomfort, and civil unrest, Makai disagreed. “The world is a harsh place,” he countered. “It is up to the people who read things on the protest tree to make the world better.”
Gretchel believes that the tree can spark positive change, as demonstrated by new conversations surrounding religious discrimination at the Klehr Center and ongoing diplomatic discourse. Makai noted that while these discourse events are happening, F&M’s small population causes low attendance at most events on campus, which matters when attempting to educate students on important issues.
The discourse closed with a final question: If the protest tree were to have guidelines, what would you like those guidelines to be? The panel’s answer was a resounding no, but clarifications are necessary.
“It would feel like breaking tradition,” concluded Gretchel, agreeing with the group. “The problem with guidelines is that… it can be hard to ensure accountability.”
Suggestions for providing clarity included posting a QR code listing the tree’s purpose and alternatively, a plaque explaining the meaning of the Protest Tree to freshmen. According to the panel, it also might be helpful to document additional recommendations to prevent censorship, like including names and faces of the posting’s subjects.
Makai brought the discourse to a close with a message that encapsulated the seeming true purpose of the Protest Tree since its inception: “Keep that protest tree up. Post something.”
Sarah Nicell is the News Editor. Their email is email@example.com.