Straight from print: What does freedom of speech mean at AU?
Offensive posters, flag burning and controversial speakers call campus policy into question
This article originally appeared in The Eagle's December 9 special edition.
Red and yellow flames spewed from the American flag as students held a lighter to the cloth and gathered around the Mary Graydon Center to protest the election of Donald Trump on Nov. 9. Participants yelled and chanted during the protest, and their actions raised the question of how much free speech is allowed on AU’s campus.
The United States Constitution’s first amendment grants free speech, and the Supreme Court has ruled flag burning to be constitutional; however, AU, as a private institution, has the ability to limit those rights if school administrators chose to do so through policy. Private institutions are not “state agents” and have a legal right to draft specific institutional policies that may differ from national regulations, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The University’s free speech policy, put forth by the Office of Campus Life, the Office of the Provost, the Office of Finance and Treasurer and the Office of Human Resources, describes what students can and cannot say on campus and was first put into place on Oct. 26, 1982. The document brands the University as an institution of free speech, but states that AU “reserves the right to specify time, manner and place for the exercise of these freedoms, guided by factors that include safety, the rights of others and the normal functioning of the university.”
The list includes restrictions on speech that may threaten or endanger the University community, obstruct traffic or damage AU property.
The interpretation of when safety is threatened by speech has been debated throughout the semester, as some students promote the ideas of complete and unrestricted free speech, while others see the need for policy regulations.
The Poster Process
One of the ways many student groups promote their causes and ideas is through posters displayed on campus. In 2010, AU put forth a second policy, one specifically addressing posters on campus, and this document contained its own set of rules. The poster policy includes 12 regulations, available on the University’s website, and all posters at AU must meet these requirements.
Of all of the regulations, No. 8, specifies that posters on campus “may not advertise alcohol, drugs, gambling, or anything else that would be a violation of University policies, either through language or artwork.”
Approved posters must fit within the confines of the student conduct code, as well as avoid any visual or written messages that might incite hate or violence. Other regulations cover formatting, placement and style of the posters as well as the approval process.
The Office of Student Activities serves as a middleman between the poster producers and the student body and is charged with approving the materials for distribution.
In 2014, The Beagle, AU’s satirical newspaper on campus, distributed fliers on campus to share its content, but the posters were ultimately thrown away due to soliciting rules on campus, according to The Eagle. The instance sparked interest on campus and led The Eagle to editorialize on the poster policy, critiquing the poster approval process and asking that the policy “be clear, detailed and easily accessible, especially for student clubs and organizations.”
Unapproved posters cause tension
Almost six years to the day after Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson signed the poster policy in October 2010, the Latino and American Student Organization (LASO) at AU discovered a poster in Clark Hall advertising a “Frito Bandito” party at an address in Georgetown as a joke in October. LASO vice president Lily Moreno believed the poster to be hate speech aimed directly towards the Latinx community.
“In the opinion of the LASO E-Board, it was a racist attack targeted at a Latino population on campus, particularly the Mexican population on campus, and we were all very deeply disturbed by that just because we are really trying to create a really strong community,” Moreno said. “It really ripples through the community when you are talking about someone because of their nationality because when you attack one, you attack us all.”
The poster was found by a LASO member and was reported to the executive board of the group, Moreno said. She said that the posters also appeared in several other places on campus.
Moreno said Public Safety, which LASO members have been in contact with in regards to the incident, took down the signs, but the entire situation brought up concerns about AU’s poster policy and the fact that such messages could be displayed on campus.
Moreno said the address for the party on the poster belonged to an off campus individual near Georgetown. The poster featured a cartoon man in a sombrero, a poem and a Donald Trump image. It also included a phone number belonging to AU’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion.
“The thing that really bothered us and the president of LASO is that someone really went out of their way to make this,” Moreno said. “This isn’t something that you just put up. Someone went out of their way to put all these little rhymes together, to put all these quotes, and the little guy in the sombrero, and find this address and find CDI’s number.”
Cole Wrampelmeier, the coordinator for digital event publishing at AU who assists in the poster approval process for Student Activities, said his office never saw the LASO posters, and he did not hear of the incident until interviewed for this article. However, he was involved in approving a series of posters that some students considered to be hate speech last spring when he helped approve advertisements for an event featuring Milo Yiannopoulos put on by the Young Americans for Liberty.
Milo on campus
In April 2016, the YAL executive board decided to bring Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial conservative journalist, to campus to address free speech, said current YAL president Andrew Magloughlin. In an effort to promote the event, YAL submitted marketing materials to Student Activities along with posters for approval.
Although Magloughlin said YAL’s posters were approved, he said the whole postering policy on campus is “unconstitutional” because of the review process involved and the fact that the University prescreens the content before approving posters.
The poster review process, according to Wrampelmeier, just means that students have to submit their posters to Student Activities to ensure that the posters meet University postering requirements. Wrampelmeier saids he mostly looks for technical details on the posters, such as the logo of the sponsoring organization and the date, time and location of the event being promoted.
Occasionally, however, if the content of the poster appears to be in conflict with the student conduct code, Wrampelmeier said he might run the poster by his supervisors or participate in a meeting with his team to talk about the content.
YAL submitted a poster for review featuring Yiannopoulos “smoking a blunt” on a poster Magloughlin said. The club submitted it in hopes the University would reject it and they could protest that AU had limited the club’s free speech. However, Magloughlin said the posters were still approved.
Wrampelmeier said some of the YAL posters, particularly those without a date, time and the name of the club producing the poster, were not approved. However, he approved the remaining YAL posters that did include all necessary information.
“I don’t agree with Young Americans for Liberty, but I did not see it as hate speech,” Wrampelmeier said. “I could see it as hurtful, I could see it as people feeling strongly and very hurt by it, but I didn’t see violence actually come from it.”
Wrampelmeier said that two students came to speak to him about their frustration with the Yiannopoulos event posters after his name was posted on Facebook as an individual who approved them. Wrampelmeier said he understands why students were upset about the words and images on the posters, and he appreciates all recommendations and thoughts from students concerning controversial issues on campus.
Stephanie Black, a sophomore and an executive board member of She’s The First and four other clubs on campus, disagrees. She argues that AU has allowed too much hate speech on campus and needs a clearer definition of what speech is permitted. She said the legal definition of free speech is confusing in itself, but she wants to see AU having more conversations about free speech, particularly in terms of how such free speech might affect the mental health of students on campus.
In April, Black protested the Yiannopoulos event by standing up throughout the entire speech holding up a sign reading “Free Speech Does Not Equal Hate Speech.” Black said she received backlash and hate comments on social media, but she stands by her decision to protest. She wishes AU had not allowed Yiannopoulos to come to campus because of his reputation for inciting what she considers to be speech that encourages violence.
“AU likes to come out and say ‘we are supportive, we care about our students, we get their struggles, and then they pull s--- like this,” Black said. “They say, ‘we care about the safety and well-being of our students,’ and then racist posters come out, so I don’t think AU does enough.”
The Milo and LASO posters have not been the only public fliers that have drawn attention from students in the past six months.
On Nov. 16, posters were found in McKinley with a Trump-Pence logo and the statement, “The Electoral College said we won, you lost...get over it snowflakes." Images with the statements “Blue Lives Matter,” “Unborn Lives Matter,” “All Lives Matter,” and “Jewish Lives Matter” also appeared on the posters.
Wrampelmeier said these posters, like the LASO posters, were not approved by Student Activities and were removed swiftly.
Most recently, the election of Donald Trump has spurred emotional reactions from both supporters and opponents of the president-elect at AU. The Trump-Pence “Lives Matter” posters are just another example of student expression, but because the posters were not sent to Student Activities for approval, they were taken down, Wrampelmeier said. Flag burning and postering, while two dramatically different versions of speech, are both protected under the constitution, but their acceptance on AU’s campus depends on the interpretation of the campus free speech and poster policies.
“Free speech is necessary, and free speech is important, hate speech on the other hand is something entirely different,” Black said. “And you know, free speech means you can say what you believe and what you want to say, but that doesn't mean that you don’t get criticised for it, that doesn’t mean that you don’t get backlash from it, that doesn’t mean that you can just say what you want without impunity.”