More than 200 stickers from a white-nationalist organization were plastered on lampposts and signs around the University of Illinois campus last weekend.
The stickers were from an organization called Patriot Front, considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
According to photos shared with The News-Gazette, there were at least seven different stickers, one with an anti-immigrant message and others promoting the group's view that European-Americans conquered America and the country belongs to their descendants.
The UI's Facilities and Services staff removed about 60 of the stickers from campus signs and lampposts Wednesday after administrators became aware of them, officials said. Campus policies restrict the posting of flyers, stickers and other signs on authorized bulletin boards and kiosks.
The majority were removed by a couple of students over the weekend, who spent more than five hours Saturday night scraping them off poles on campus and along Campustown streets.
Freshman Michael Johnson said he and a friend removed stickers near Pennsylvania Avenue Residence Halls, the Illini Union, along Green Street, down First Street, Gregory Street and Wright Street.
"We probably scraped down about 150 of them," Johnson said, and other students did the same as they encountered them. "There must have been in excess of 200 stickers across campus and in Champaign."
Johnson, who said he's done the same with white-nationalist flyers near his hometown in Indiana, said the Patriot Front is active in the Midwest and on college campuses.
Watchdog groups say Patriot Front is a splinter group of Vanguard America, a self-proclaimed fascist group that supported white nationalism but disbanded after the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year, where one protester, Heather Heyer, was killed.
"Patriot Front is a white supremacist group whose members maintain that their ancestors conquered America and bequeathed it to them alone. They define themselves as American fascists or American nationalists who are focused on preserving America's identity as a European-American identity," the Anti-Defamation League website says.
Johnson said he and his colleagues didn't report the flyers to UI police but did tell several professors.
'First Amendment right'
UI police spokesman Patrick Wade said police got an email with a photo of one of the stickers on the back of a stop sign and directed that person to the campus Bias Assessment Reporting Team.
This was the first incident of its kind this year, Wade said.
"This political rhetoric tends to heat up as we get closer and closer to the election," he said. "Although some of these things may not necessarily be a crime, we do want people to report things to us, so we have an awareness of the situation, and we can provide any resources to people if they're feeling unsafe.
"As a police department, we don't regulate speech. But if it includes any kind of direct threat, that's where it starts crossing the line from speech to a crime," he said. "Certainly, even if it's just speech, we still want to know about it."
UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the campus removes flyers and other posts when they violate the rules.
"It has nothing to do with the content," she said. "People have a First Amendment right. It doesn't matter what it says, if it's in a place where it doesn't belong," it gets removed, she said.
Courts have ruled that universities and other government entities can enforce "time, place and manner restrictions" on speech but not the content itself.
Facilities and services spokesman Steve Breitwieser said administrators asked that any illegal stickers be removed, and staff members, mostly painters, found about 60 across campus. The majority were on stop signs and street signs, including several near the UI Ice Arena, one adjacent to Lincoln Hall, and others at Sixth and Green streets and Goodwin Avenue and Green Street, he said.
What stickers said
It's unclear what motivated the action, though it came just before the campus commemoration of Indigenous Peoples Day on Monday.
"I don't think anybody has any idea who did it," Kaler said.
Some of the messages weren't overtly tied to white nationalism, such as one that read, "Life, liberty and the pursuit of victory."
Others were more direct.
One sticker with a map of the United States read, "Not stolen, conquered." Another urged, "Reclaim America," with an Italian fascist symbol.
An image of white settlers was headlined, "To ourselves and our posterity." And another sticker that read "Keep America American: Report any and all illegal aliens, they are criminals," listed a number for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Johnson said some of the messages are crafted to "appeal to a more mainstream audience" and win over college students who may feel "disenfranchised" by certain campus policies.
"Patriot Front is an image-obsessed organization that rehabilitated the explicitly fascist agenda of Vanguard America with garish patriotism. Patriot Front focuses on theatrical rhetoric and activism that can be easily distributed as propaganda for its chapters across the country," the Southern Poverty Law Center website says.
It notes that the group's manifesto says even citizens who have been in the country for centuries, such as African-Americans, are not true Americans because they are "not of the founding stock of our people" or part of the "European diaspora."