The real target is pro-life cross displays?
A private Texas university has united student opinion across the ideological spectrum in opposition to a “restrictive and destructive” policy that bans a September 11 memorial display.
Southern Methodist University rebuffed its Young Americans for Freedom chapter’s request to host a display in a prominent campus location, violating the spirit of free speech, student groups told The College Fix.
The administration claims it is trying to accommodate the speech without disrupting existing college operations. But one allied group believes the new rules on “lawn displays” — motivated by an SMU commitment to avoid “triggering” students — are intended to stop pro-life messages that have proven more controversial.
The coalition of groups will seek relief in the student senate if the university sticks to its position, one leader told The Fix.
— Jacqui Jacoby (@jacquigrace11) August 1, 2017
Students have the right to ‘avoid messages that are triggering’
Last month Grant Wolf, president of the YAF chapter, requested the use of the Dallas Hall Lawn (below) for a display involving nearly 3,000 American flags to memorialize those killed in the terrorist attacks. YAF’s display has been held on the lawn annually since 2015.
In emails dated July 24 obtained by The Fix, the university rejected the group’s proposed location for the Sept. 10 event but modified it to take place less than a quarter-mile away.
“The University has a new policy regarding Memorial Lawn Displays (see below) so I have changed the location of your request to MoMac Park,” Student Activities Coordinator Lydia Dale wrote in an email.
The new restrictions are intended to strike a balance between “the right of all members of the SMU community to express their opinions” and their right to “avoid messages that are triggering, harmful, or harassing,” according to the lawn display guidelines reprinted in the email.
A cached version of the policy with the “triggering, harmful, or harassing” language is dated July 2017.
The university’s response ruffled diverse student groups on campus.
“If expression is banned from a part of this campus, that is detrimental to the education of the students,” SMU College Democrats Co-President Matthew Lucci told The Fix in a phone call Tuesday.
The College Democrats chapter “is very much in favor of open political discussion,” he said: Last year it joined the College Republicans to urge the student government to pass a version of the so-called Chicago Principles to protect unpopular speech from administrative censorship.
Though the bill failed in the student senate, the effort paved the way for future cooperation among politically divergent groups.
University blames ‘poor wording’ of policy
That cooperation was on full display Tuesday when SMU’s chapter of Turning Point USA — the pro-capitalism group sometimes conflated with College Republicans — joined with the CRs, CDs, Young Americans for Freedom, feminist and pro-life campus groups to oppose the venue change.
“If SMU chooses to limit students’ rights to challenge and discuss the ideas and values that are fueling the creation of World Changers, it is indoctrination,” the groups’ leaders told SMU President R. Gerald Turner in a letter, citing the university’s public boast that it shapes “world changers.”
They specifically condemned the “triggering, harmful, or harassing” language in the new policy, saying it “has implications that are very dangerous to our university’s academic environment and echoes similar statements made by universities across the nation”:
People absolutely have to have a right to their own opinions, but this does not come with a right to be shielded from opposing ideas, especially in an environment dedicated to the learning, sharing and developing of new ideas.
In a statement emailed to The Fix Tuesday, SMU public relations claimed the replacement venue was “twice the size of the previous site.”
The sought venue “is used frequently for outdoor class space, studying between classes, and a variety of university events throughout the year — creating the need for a different, yet still prominent, display area,” it said.
“SMU respects the rights of all campus community members to express their opinions, as well as their right to be free from coercion and harassment.” The statement alluded to the original wording of the revised policy, saying it “has been updated to better reflect this balance and to remove the poor wording regarding triggering or harmful messages.”
Full text: pic.twitter.com/04oEv0joh2
— SMU (@SMU) August 1, 2017
The statement also claimed the prohibition on displays on Dallas Hall Lawn was imposed before YAF submitted its proposal. A copy of that policy was removed from the university’s website Tuesday.
A followup email from an SMU spokesperson said YAF was permitted to go forward with the display from the second site.
‘Much less prominent’ location for memorial
SMU College Republicans president Drew Wicker told The Fix he did not believe SMU’s claim the alternative site was “twice the size” of the original.
“It’s not even close. It’s also much less prominent of a location,” he said in a Facebook message Tuesday. “Not nearly as much foot traffic.”
Map of MoMac Park, the larger site where all approved lawn displays, regardless of sponsoring organization or subject, will be located. pic.twitter.com/MqWFgMB5i5
— SMU (@SMU) August 1, 2017
In a phone call, Wicker said the new policy was “clearly targeting conservative organizations” and speculated it was partially intended to block Mustangs for Life from hosting pro-life events.
The policy mentions that “crosses” — often used in “Cemetery of Innocents” displays — are an example of items used in memorial lawn displays. One SMU student criticized these displays in a Facebook video last year.
Wicker said a rival group, Mustangs for Unity, had used Dallas Hall Lawn to conduct pro-choice counter-demonstrations.
The goal of the politically diverse coalition fighting this venue restriction, he said, is keeping SMU from “go[ing] the way of UC Berkeley, Middlebury or Evergreen College.”
The College Democrats’ Lucci said he hoped the university’s actions would illustrate the need to adopt the Chicago Principles, an effort he intends to restart this upcoming academic year. If SMU doesn’t relent, the groups will “engage” the student government.
“Rather than restricting the ability to learn outside of the classroom, we should be encouraging it and allowing it to flourish,” Lucci said.