AUBURN, Ala., December 22, 2011—Auburn University has ordered a Ron Paul for President campaign banner removed from the inside of a dorm room window while allowing students to display numerous other banners, stickers, and flags. Student Eric Philips, who was ordered to remove his sign last month, used his cell phone to gather photographic evidence of the double standard and came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“An unreasonable and pointless ban on all window displays is bad enough,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “Yet it’s obvious from the photos that Auburn has actually singled out Eric Philips’ Ron Paul poster for removal. If Auburn is selectively banning only speech it deems controversial—or worse, political speech it simply doesn’t like—freedom of expression is in grave danger at Auburn.”
On November 7, Philips was ordered by his residence hall director to take down the Ron Paul sign he had recently placed in his window. Philips did so. In a conversation with student affairs administrator Nick Wiard about the issue on November 18, Wiard cited the newly adopted Auburn Housing and Residence Life policy 1.4.5, which states: “Hanging or displaying items such as flags, banners, decals, or signs out of or obstructing residence hall windows is prohibited.”
Philips contacted FIRE, which sent a letter to Auburn President Jay Gogue on December 9, informing him of the unconstitutional double standard apparently in place at Auburn and of the evidence in FIRE‘s possession. FIRE wrote, “Such selective enforcement and viewpoint-based discrimination is untenable at Auburn, a public university bound by the First Amendment. Auburn must evenly enforce its policies on student expression.”
FIRE’s letter also reminded President Gogue that during the 2008 election season, the University of Texas at Austin attempted to enforce a similar policy banning all signs in residence hall windows. Two students were ordered to remove campaign signs from their windows or else be blocked from class registration. The resulting uproar led UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. to suspend the rule indefinitely, saying, “I believe that the free expression of ideas is crucial to our educational mission.” The University of Alabama also abandoned a ban on window displays in 2003 after students protested the ban by hanging American flags all over a dormitory.
So far, Auburn’s response has been disappointing. Auburn Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Amy Hecht responded to FIRE on December 13, failing to acknowledge that what she called a “total ban” on window displays had been selectively enforced but insisting that Auburn is “committed to the consistent and nondiscriminatory enforcement of this policy.”
“As other universities have recognized, a total ban on window displays is an unjustifiable and unnecessary restraint on expression. Auburn has given no reason for its ‘total ban’ on such displays, which are a part of campus culture at colleges across America,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “It’s time for Auburn to admit that a ban on expression like this is not only wrong, it’s ripe for abuse—and it’s being abused.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.