‘Emotional Safety?’

By on August 11, 2008

The Maryland Daily Record reports this afternoon on an interesting story out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). It seems that a group of pro-life protestors that wished to display a series of large banners twice saw UMBC order its protests to be moved to what the group called "more deserted" areas of campus before it could even put up the display. As often happens, the dispute has ended up in court–although this time it looks like UMBC is willing to negotiate with the Alliance Defense Fund (which is representing the student group) and has agreed to "revise rules as to when university officials are allowed to move a student group display without notice, such as inclement weather or safety concerns."

Disputes over anti-abortion displays are nothing new. What struck me about this article, however, was this paragraph:

Lawyers for both sides met during several lengthy recesses to hammer out the details of the newly worded facilities-use policy, with the university removing the phrases "emotional safety" and "emotional harassment" from the list of reasons officials could move a display without notice.

Now, I don’t know what kind of protests UMBC administrators had in mind with this policy, but it’s hard to believe that they actually think that "emotional harassment" or a lack of "emotional safety" are unacceptable aspects of a protest. Are Tibetan protestors outside the Chinese embassy to be held liable for the "emotional safety" of the pro-government embassy employees inside? When a group of antiwar protestors covers itself in fake blood and lies all over the steps of a government building, are they unlawfully "emotionally harassing" those inside who might support the war or work with the military? Protests are not designed to make their targets comfortable. If a university is willing to silence anti-abortion protestors because they make the targets of campus protests (presumably, young women) uncomfortable, they have effectively declared that all protests are unacceptable–a stunning violation of the Constitution on a public campus. While it is good that UMBC is willing to negotiate to get rid of these absurd rules, it should have known better than to institute them in the first place. Lessons commonly learned in junior-high social studies classes should not come as surprising news to college and university administrators.