Three out-of-state activists placed flyers and rocks with discriminatory statements Thursday evening near a University of Wyoming sorority that made history last year by becoming the first to admit a transgender woman, police and LGBTQ advocates said.
University police responded near the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house after the three activists began placing flyers on vehicles parked along King Avenue, school spokesman Chad Baldwin told WyoFile. The three also placed rocks painted with messages on the ground and wrote in chalk on the sidewalk.
Many of the messages, Baldwin said, related to the sorority’s admission of the transgender sister. Wyoming Equality, an LGTBQ advocacy group, described the messages as derogatory, hateful and intimidating.
“Out-of-state extremists tried to intimidate a UW sorority today — they vandalized the campus and menaced young women with hateful messages printed on stacks of rocks,” Wyoming Equality Director Sara Burlingame said in a statement late Thursday. “This is how you know they aren’t from Wyoming: They were cowardly and cruel.”
The sorority’s decision to admit Artemis Langford drew national attention — and often scorn — from right-wing media outlets and groups. It also prompted a federal lawsuit that was dismissed by a judge last month.
A Colorado-based group that’s posted transphobic statements on its social media accounts shared a photo Wednesday on Facebook and Twitter of what appears to be a stack of rocks painted with anti-transgender messages. One message misgendered Langford. The group said it was “going to the University of Wyoming to drop these around the kappa kappa gamma house.”
The same group posted a video Friday afternoon of the activists placing stickers and painted rocks on UW property around the campus and the sorority. They later hung a banner targeting Langford from an overpass.
Police were alerted to the incident around 5 p.m. Thursday. They told people leafleting cars that doing so without the consent of the vehicles’ owners violated a city of Laramie ordinance. The people removed them.
The group had also placed more than 20 painted rocks on the ground. Those were removed and kept by police and others, Baldwin said.
Officers did not issue any citations, Baldwin said, noting that chalk writing does not permanently deface property. Those messages were washed off by UW employees.
The three people involved left the scene between 5:30 p.m. and 5:40 p.m., according to the university.
“Of even greater concern is the fact that this group had crossed state lines to bring their brand of hate and intimidation to target a specific UW student and sorority,” Burlingame said. “We stand firmly against any form of personal targeting or harassment, and we pledge our support to the affected student during this distressing time.”
In an interview Friday, Burlingame noted that “terrible” speech can also be protected by the First Amendment. While the university might be limited in its response as a result, the public doesn’t have to tolerate hate speech, she said.
“You have the right to take it from your car. Erase it from the sidewalk,” she said. “You’re under no obligation to let that stand at your college.”
UW said it would continue to provide “enhanced security” around the sorority.
Thursday night’s incident at the sorority is the latest in a string of events that’s caused unease within the school’s LGBTQ community. In December, a Laramie church leader who frequently preaches on the campus brought a sign to the student union breezeway challenging Langford’s gender while naming the student.
The university soon suspended church elder Todd Schmidt from tabling in the student union for a year on the grounds his behavior violated school rules on discrimination and harassment. Schmidt, in turn, continued to preach at other places on the campus and filed a lawsuit seeking to halt the ban.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal granted a preliminary injunction that stopped the suspension while the case proceeded. She concluded Schmidt’s actions did not meet the legal definition for harassment and that his speech fell within a broader debate about gender identity, which is protected by the First Amendment.
UW President Ed Seidel announced in an email to the campus community Thursday afternoon — before the latest incident — that the school’s lawyers would not challenge the injunction, which had allowed Schmidt to resume tabling at the student union. The judge’s ruling indicated the school was unlikely to win at trial.
“While our motive in suspending Schmidt’s tabling privileges was to protect our students, we have accepted the preliminary ruling and wish to move forward,” Seidel wrote in his message to the campus. “We will be watching closely to make sure that Schmidt’s speech — and that of others — does not go beyond the legal bounds recognized in this ruling and established in decades of case law.”
Schmidt had already returned to tabling at the breezeway following the judge’s ruling last month, Baldwin said. He had not violated any university rules since returning.
Even with the school’s decision not to fight the injunction, the case is not technically over. There’s no indication of a settlement in court records.
Free expression and inclusion
Seidel’s announcement on the preliminary injunction came in a broader email that stressed the importance of protecting free expression at the university while also encouraging respectful dialogue. He noted that UW, like many institutions across the country, has faced challenges in striking that balance.
The university, he said, plans to allow a broad range of speakers and activities. Next month, that will include both a student-organized drag show during the annual Shepard Symposium on Social Justice and an appearance by Riley Gaines, a former college swimmer who advocates against the inclusion of transgender athletes in women’s sports.
Universities, Seidel wrote, play a unique role in society by offering a neutral forum for debate.
“Providing such a forum does not mean the university either endorses or condemns the different perspectives expressed,” he wrote. “What it does mean is that, as our free expression group states, UW’s ‘adherence to impartiality reaffirms the intellectual freedom of all at UW to seek and receive information without restriction and enjoy unfettered access to all expression of ideas through which any side of a question, cause or movement may be explored.’”
Last year, Seidel formed UW’s Freedom of Expression, Intellectual Freedom and Constructive Dialogue Working Group as the school waded through free speech issues. The group released a report with multiple recommendations this summer.
The sorority admitted Langford in the fall of 2022. That decision received little attention at first, save for a story in the student newspaper the Branding Iron. But later the decision spurred a frenzy among conservative media outlets and groups.
In April, seven of Langford’s sorority sisters filed a federal lawsuit that sought to void her membership because she’s transgender. The plaintiffs argued the sorority broke its bylaws and breached housing contracts when it admitted Langford. They also accused her of “inappropriate behavior.”
Langford’s attorneys vehemently denied those allegations, and the judge in the case later ruled they were not relevant to the lawsuit and “unbefitting in federal court.” The same judge last month dismissed the suit entirely, concluding the sorority sisters’ attorneys had failed to adequately state a claim. Further, the judge said he would not define what a woman is or interfere with a sorority’s membership decisions as it is a private organization.
Lawyers for the sorority sisters have filed a notice indicating they plan to appeal the judge’s decision, though they also had the option of refiling the original lawsuit.