At the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB), freshman student Byron Thomas has won the right to hang a confederate flag in his dorm room window, after he was pressured by USCB to take the flag down because others on campus found its presence offensive. As local news site WTOC reports:
18 year-old Byron Thomas, a North Augusta, SC native and freshman at USCB, is African American. He wants the right to hang the flag in his dorm room window.
After multiple complaints, Thomas was told the flag must come out of the window.
"To me it is a heritage thing and a pride thing. It is not a racist thing whatsoever," Thomas told WTOC.
Thomas decided to do something he couldn’t do at home. "No sir, because my parents have strong feelings about it," he said.
He hung the Confederate flag in his dorm room window for the rest of his peers, with a courtyard view, to see.
Thomas said his feelings about the flag were intensified after he did a research paper on the flag in September.
"I’m no idiot. I researched both sides but in the end I formed my own conclusion," he said.
By November, the housing staff at USCB told Thomas the flag must come down.
"They never told me people were complaining. They said I was violating a racism code," he said.
As of last Thursday, following an appeal by Thomas and a review by USCB’s lawyers, Thomas was again able to hang his flag from his room window. Doug Oblander, USCB’s Vice Chancellor for Student Development, acknowledged to WTOC that "It probably is an infringement of his First Amendment rights" to order Thomas to remove the flag.
Most encouragingly for the students at USCB is that the university realized-evidently of its own accord-that the protection of Thomas’ First Amendment rights ultimately outweighed the sensibilities of those who were offended by the content of his expression. In doing this, USCB tacitly rejected key portions of its Carolinian Creed, a problematic "civility" code that students at USCB are expected to abide by. The many vagaries inherent in the Creed, and their resulting chilling effect on campus speech, have helped earn the University of South Carolina at Columbia (which, as a member of the USC system, also binds its students to the Creed) a "red light" speech code rating from FIRE.
FIRE, in fact, used the Carolinian Creed as an example of such problematic policy statements when we published our administrative handbook Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies:
For example, the University of South Carolina’s "Carolinian Creed" states: "As a Carolinian, I will respect the dignity of all persons … I will discourage bigotry … I will demonstrate concern for others … Allegiance to these ideals requires each Carolinian to refrain from and discourage behaviors which threaten the freedom and respect every individual deserves." While these values-and the values contained in similar policies at universities nationwide-may seem uncontroversial and even admirable, a university cannot require its students to categorically agree to them without violating basic rights to private conscience and academic freedom. Specifically, universities cannot require students to swear allegiance to an official set of university values. As the U.S. Supreme Court famously stated in a 1943 decision upholding the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses not to salute the U.S. flag, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
The threat to free speech posed by the Creed isn’t an abstraction; it was specifically cited by the administrators who ordered Thomas to remove the flag from his window. That’s what makes USCB’s ultimate response so encouraging. As USCB Chancellor Jane T. Upshaw wrote in a statement to the campus (carried by WTOC in full):
The Confederate battle flag was displayed in the window of a USCB on-campus student apartment this semester. When USCB students expressed concern about the presence of the flag in their community residential space, USCB staff asked the student to remove the flag from the window, out of respect for his fellow students’ concerns. The student was told that he and his roommates could display the flag inside their apartment. We acted in the spirit of the Carolina Creed to resolve this issue within our community.
However, because of USCB’s firm belief in the First Amendment and its right of free speech, the University cannot and will not prohibit these flags or other symbols that our students choose to display. To do so would contest the constitutional right of free speech or expression – a principle we hold sacrosanct.
In the spirit and practice of our commitment to civil discourse, we have asked the USCB Student Government Association to sponsor a forum next semester. The focus of the forum will be how we as a community of scholars honor the Carolinian creed’s call to respect each student’s "need for conditions which support their work and development" and also maintain each student’s First Amendment rights.
The positive implications this could have for free speech at USCB–indeed, throughout the whole USC system–are dramatic, and I heartily commend Chancellor Upshaw and USCB for recognizing their duties to protect fully the First Amendment rights of their students. FIRE will be happy to take part in this dialogue, and we stand ready to help USCB make the necessary adjustments to clarify that no student will ever be punished or investigated for exercising their First Amendment rights.