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After students speak up, Southern Methodist University backs down from memorial lawn display policy

By August 18, 2017

Southern Methodist University says it will update the memorial lawn display policy it cited earlier this summer to justify moving the SMU Young Americans for Freedom’s annual lawn display commemorating the September 11 attacks. The move follows pressure from student groups across the political spectrum, including Mustangs for Life, the Feminist Equality Movement, the College Democrats, the College Republicans, and Turning Point USA.

Earlier this month, the policy was updated to move all lawn displays from the Dallas Hall Lawn to the less-trafficked MoMac Park so students could “avoid messages that are triggering, harmful, or harassing.” SMU sent that version of the policy to the SMU Young Americans for Freedom in response to their request to hold their third annual September 11 memorial lawn display on Dallas Hall Lawn. The same policy was temporarily live on the SMU website. FIRE raised concerns about the policy’s intent on August 4.

In a welcome development made public in an August 10 message to community members, SMU President R. Gerald Turner announced that student groups had worked with the administration to revise this chilling threat to student expression:

In coming together, students representing a range of organizations engaged in discussions with administrators and each other to find common ground, exemplifying an effective way to resolve issues. Throughout the process, they demonstrated their commitment to the free exchange of ideas and civil discourse – a commitment that SMU as an institution of higher learning shares.

FIRE is pleased SMU listened to its students and reconsidered this misguided policy. We hope this serves as an example of the positive outcomes that can arise when universities engage with their students when considering policy changes, and when students of different beliefs unite against policies that restrict their freedom of expression.

Tuner went on to clarify that students may see further changes to the policy, but that student opinions will continue to play a prominent role in doing so.

“[T]he University intends to review and amend Student Activities procedures and University policy regarding lawn displays,” he wrote in the August 10 statement. “This review process will be undertaken in consultation with the student government and student community, including student organizations.”

Given the speech-friendly result here, FIRE is hopeful that SMU will pay closer attention to student expression as it revises its policies. Involving student organizations in that process is an important step.

Schools: Southern Methodist University