‘Safety’ Defense Only Makes Auburn Look Foolish

By April 23, 2012

For months now, as shown last week on Stossel, FIRE has been fighting alongside Auburn University student Eric Philips for the reform of an unnecessarily restrictive policy on window decorations at Auburn. As we’ve argued, the policy needlessly curtails a traditional form of student expression. What’s more, as FIRE and Philips have repeatedly shown, the policy has been unevenly enforced, with Philips being ordered to remove his banner supporting Ron Paul’s presidential candidacy while other students have faced no such censorship.  

Here’s the timeline: FIRE first wrote to Auburn about the policy in December 2011; Auburn responded that it was indeed committed to a "total ban" on such decorations. FIRE wrote back in January, asking once again for Auburn to reform the policy while providing photographic evidence of Auburn’s continued uneven enforcement. 

Then, on February 6, Auburn Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry responded to FIRE and changed Auburn’s argument. Now, Carry claimed, the key purpose of Auburn’s policy was "safety." Specifically, Carry said:

Our FIRST responsibility to our residential community is their safety, health, and wellbeing. Every community standard is … evaluated based on our most important criteria: "Will this community standard help to keep students safe?"

Well, if this were really true as it relates to students hanging banners from their windows, then boy oh boy, has Auburn been asleep at the wheel, given our continuous documentation of its lackadaisical enforcement of the policy. This shoddy enforcement continues right up to the present day, as this photo taken by Philips on April 17 shows:

Window Hanging at Auburn

Two possibilities stand out here. One is that Auburn isn’t meeting its duty to ensure the basic safety of its students. The other, which seems to me more likely, is that hanging banners, whether advertising a sorority barbeque or one’s presidential candidate of choice, is not actually that hazardous to student safety, and Auburn is making content-based decisions about whether students may express themselves through this traditional method. Indeed, it seems quite unlikely that Auburn really has a safety rationale for its "total ban." (Other universities seem to function just fine without such bans.)

Auburn would make its administrators’ lives a whole lot easier—and its students’ speech a whole lot freer—by reforming its unnecessary policy. Until it does, and it ceases its de facto viewpoint discrimination against Philips’ speech, it will continue to hear from FIRE about it. 

With Eric Philips having joined FIRE President Greg Lukianoff to discuss the case on last week’s episode of Stossel, it’s safe to bet Auburn will be hearing about it from quite a few others as well.

Schools: Auburn University