Several students at Central Michigan University had 9/11 related material removed from their hallway doors as part of an administrative effort to restrict offensive speech. A wide range of vocal supporters of the students' right to free speech, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has sought to convince the college to allow the students to express their opinions on their dorm room doors. Though CMU's Residence Life staff argued that they could enforce speech standards in the halls, the University's president eventually overruled them in an attempt to avoid potentially damaging legal action.
The situation developed when students in one of the dormitories posted items pertaining to the 9/11 attack and subsequent U.S. reaction. Some of the items posted included pictures of the Twin Towers exploding, American eagles and Osama bin Laden, as well as newspaper clippings and American flags. Don Pasco, a resident of the dormitory, said that he and his roommates were forced to remove pictures and items related to the terrorist attacks off of their door. "They said we had to take it down because it offended people", said Pasco. "We had an American eagle, a picture of the World Trade Center exploding and a column. We had to take everything down except a CMU basketball schedule."
According to Pasco, "Other students even had to remove American flags. It was the whole hall". American flags or pictures that were pro-American had to be taken down because they were apparently offending people.
The Residential Hall Director for the dormitory, Al Nowak, said that more than one student voiced their displeasure at the displayed materials. He and two RA's walked around and asked the students to take down the items on their doors. He denied that they asked the students to take the American flag down, claiming that the flags had somehow been stolen the next day.
Nowak claims the school merely wants all of its students to feel comfortable. "We look to create an environment conducive to academic study. If people choose to put something in their room, it's OK. But the common areas have a posting policy. If offensive, defined as anything that degrades other individuals, verbally inappropriate messages, explicit pictures, nudity or any type of profanity, it is not allowed."
Some students disagreed, however, with the contention that the material they posted was offensive. One student, Abra Wise, was asked to take down email forwards and other pro-American images from her door. She told CM-Life that she was "kind of pissed. I thought it was a personal opinion. I don't think anyone had profanity and I don't think they were that offensive."
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education expressed dismay at the public university's decision. In a letter to the President of the University, Michael Rao, FIRE noted that even if the speech was controversial, that should not be reason enough to demand removal. "The First Amendment does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech. Indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial. For this reason, Central Michigan University must vigorously guard against policies under which a cry of offense' is sufficient to silence students."
The American Civil Liberties Union has also pressured the college to take a step back and consider its policies. ACLU legal director for the state of Michigan, Michael Steinberg, remarked in the student newspaper, that the rules the university has set up appear to be problematic from a First Amendment standpoint. Students have the First Amendment right to express their support or opposition to U.S. foreign policy. The mere fact that a picture or statement might be offensive to some people is generally not sufficient to engage in censorship.
In light of the controversy, the Student Government Association passed a resolution condemning the actions of the college and calling for freedom of speech, particularly speech of a patriotic nature. The resolution, F01-04, reads:
"Whereas, the campus of Central Michigan University is a place where ideas should be able to be expressed freely, and, whereas, in this time of great crisis which has befallen our nation, it is important for us all to be able to unreservedly express our patriotism."
"Recognizing, the recent alleged actions of university departments in ordering the removal of patriotic symbols and materials, therefore be it resolved, that the Student Government Association of Central Michigan University strongly condemns these actions, both now and in the future, and be it further resolved that the SGA of CMU urges all students on campus to appropriately express their patriotism and pride in America if they so choose", states the resolution in no uncertain terms.
The University's position was conveyed to the student body through a letter sent by John Fisher and several other Residential Life administrators. His letter ends by stating, We are striving for a place where all students feel secure and welcome. As professionals in Residence Life we will continue to follow the six pillars of community including trustworthiness, responsibility, respect, fairness, caring and citizenship.
It is our contention that profanity, vulgarity and other items that make people in our community, or visitors, feel uncomfortable is inappropriate and unnecessary. We will continue to espouse these values as well as to manage our residence hall communities in this fashion.
Still, ACLU director Steinberg believes this situation is all the more important because of the public nature of the University. "I understand the concern of administration", he said,"but they have to remember as an arm of the state, they can't engage in censorship of students' expression. The answer to the problem is more speech not censorship."
CMU President Mike Rao denied that the students were asked to remove flags, though he did not comment on the other allegedly offensive material. He contradicted the Residential Life letter, stating, "The University believes strongly in the free speech rights of all persons, including students living in residence halls. Indeed, the university understands that all students have a constitutional right to display even statements or photographs that might be viewed by some as offensive."
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