Universities that promise free expression cannot enforce policies regarding student speech in a way that discriminates against certain viewpoints. Unfortunately, universities often do exactly that. The newest example of this disrespect for student speech rights comes from George Washington University (GWU), where student Ramie Abounaja was forced to remove a Palestinian flag from outside his window because other students complained.
On October 26, a GWU police officer came to Abounaja’s dorm room to demand that Abounaja remove the Palestinian flag, claiming that the police department received complaints about the flag’s presence. Abounaja reports that the officer did not leave until the flag was taken down, and that he returned a few minutes later to question Abounaja about the incident and write a report. Three days later, Abounaja attempted to learn why he had been required to remove the flag:
On Thursday, October 29, Mr. Abounaja spoke to Rhonna Bollig, the area coordinator at the Center for Student Engagement, explained how he was treated, and mentioned that he could find no applicable rule. In fact, Mr Abounaja had seen five banners or flags hanging from GW residential buildings on that day alone. Ms. Bollig could not refer Mr. Abounaja to any written rule and suggested it would be “no problem” if he hung his flag up inside his room.
While the police officer’s involvement was troubling enough on its own, the controversy over Abounaja’s flag didn’t stop there. On November 3, GWU’s Graduate Fellow Office of Student Rights & Responsibilities sent Abounaja a warning letter, telling him that his behavior constituted a violation of the Code of Student Conduct and/or the Residential Community Conduct Guidelines. GWU’s administrators also told Abounaja, “[W]e hope that you will be respectful of your peers and aware of your behavior” because “[t]he act of an individual has a profound effect on the community.” He was warned that further reports against him could result in disciplinary action, but he was again not told which specific policies he had violated. The next day, Abounaja responded to the university, explaining that he felt his flag was being unfairly targeted:
I felt like I was being singled-out, because of my heritage and the viewpoint of my speech, for something I’ve seen dozens of students, fraternities and other student groups do in my three years at GW. …The events of the last week have left me feeling humiliated, upset and like I can’t even feel safe in my own dorm room. I’ve had finals this week and have found it very hard to study or to think about anything else.
He received no response. On Monday, advocacy group Palestine Legal sent a letter to GWU in defense of Abounaja, explaining that GWU’s warning letter and removal of the flag “violate the free speech principles to which GW claims to adhere” and demanding that the university apologize to Abounaja and allow him to express himself without fear of disciplinary action. Palestine Legal points out that GWU engaged in viewpoint discrimination, an act that is unacceptable at a university that claims to value freedom of expression:
It is clear, as reflected by comments from the police officer, that Mr. Abounaja was questioned, censored and sanctioned because some people complained about his flag, presumably because they do not like Palestinians or because they disagree with the viewpoint expressed.
That same day, GWU published a statement regarding the incident:
The George Washington University is committed to fostering a welcoming and safe environment for every member of the GW community, and we encourage students to share their rich diversity of backgrounds, experiences and views with their peers. GW has not banned any flags from its campus; however, the university’s Residential Community Conduct Guidelines prohibit the hanging of any object outside of a residence hall window (Section III. 7), and this is enforced when reported to the GW Police Department. These guidelines apply to all on-campus housing residents.
While GWU may use policies to restrict hangings outside windows, it cannot enforce those policies only when their content offends students, as it appears to have done in Abounaja’s case.
This is far from the first time FIRE has seen universities practice viewpoint discrimination in their enforcement of real or imaginary policies regarding window hangings. In 2013, Davidson College administrators demanded student Max Feinstein remove a rainbow flag from his window, but couldn’t produce a policy that supported their actions when Feinstein challenged them—the Director of Residence Life simply claimed that his job allowed him to decide when students must take down flags. And at Auburn University in 2011, student Eric Philips was ordered to take down a campaign banner supporting Ron Paul, even though other students were not forced to take down their window hangings. Two University of Texas, Austin (UT) students were threatened with punishment in 2008 because they failed to remove political signs from their windows after being told to do so. UT’s associate vice president for legal affairs Jeffery Graves said the rules against window hangings ensured that the university could “prevent things plastered around campus willy-nilly.” The University Democrats and the College Republicans joined forces to criticize the ban.
It’s also not unheard of for universities to treat window hangings as a police matter. As we said in August when three University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus police officers demanded a professor remove a sign from her office window that advocated for a building to be renamed after author Zora Neale Hurston, campus police have no business demanding professors or students remove posters from their windows.
George Washington University must clarify its policies and reaffirm its commitment to free speech. Should we revisit this case on the Torch, we hope it will be to commend the university for acknowledging that it cannot use its policies to target students for their viewpoints.