Last week, Louisiana State University (LSU) graduate student Benjamin Haas expressed his intention to burn an American flag at the university’s Parade Grounds to protest the treatment of Isaac Eslava, who was arrested after stealing and burning an American flag flown over a campus war memorial. Correctly, the university respected Haas’ First Amendment rights and did not seek to block his protest. However, after failing to obtain the necessary burn permits, Haas was forced to change his plan and read a statement instead.
A counter-protest was organized by students in response, and Haas was met by a large crowd opposing his defunct plan to burn a flag. Unfortunately, things got ugly, and police had to escort Haas from the scene when counter-protestors began throwing objects and shouting threats at Haas.
Yesterday morning, LSU Chancellor Michael V. Martin issued a statement concerning the events that unfolded:
Much attention has been given to Wednesday’s Free Speech Alley activities when a student announced his intention to burn the American flag on the LSU campus and a group of concerned students led by Cody Wells responded by organizing a patriotic counter-protest demonstration. What ensued was a decision by the student to only read a statement, but by that time a passionate response had developed and turned into a large and in part unruly gathering of individuals who objected to the original intent to burn the flag.
Let me make these points clear: I do not condone the burning of the flag but I defend the right for someone to express their freedom of speech by doing so. I applaud the many who responded with great passion to speak up for what their flag represents, and that was the purpose of the inspiring patriotic counter-protest that was organized by Mr. Wells. But I do not condone the behavior of that portion of the crowd who, prior to Mr. Wells’ counter-protest, resorted to verbal threats and physical actions against the student while and after he tried to read his statement.
With Freedom of Speech comes personal responsibility. In expressing our opinions we must recognize the impact of our actions and also act responsibly in response to differing opinions.
There is a reason Free Speech Alley has endured for more than a half century at LSU. It is a place for students to openly express their opinions no matter which side of a debate they support. It has been witness to debates about Vietnam, Watergate, 9-11, confederate flags, political differences, religious freedoms and campus controversies. At LSU we stand for respectful free speech dialogue and civil discourse that does not involve outrageous conduct.
Chancellor Martin’s statement in support of both sides’ right to express themselves is useful, and we applaud LSU’s stalwart protection of even unpopular protected speech.
When Martin says that LSU stands for "respectful free speech dialogue and civil discourse that does not involve outrageous conduct," we understand him to be encouraging—but not mandating—students to be "respectful." Both LSU institutionally and Martin individually have a right to encourage students to be respectful, but they cannot mandate such civility. That’s because the vast majority of speech that some would consider disrespectful is protected by the First Amendment, though sometimes distasteful or offensive. (Query: what is considered disrespectful? And who is the arbiter of civility/respectfulness?) As a public institution, LSU has a legal and moral responsibility to uphold all manner of protected speech—not just speech that it deems to be sufficiently "civil" or "respectful."
This point is especially important when calling for "respectful" speech might subject some viewpoints to worse treatments by administrators wielding too much discretion to police the elusive, subjective boundary between "respectful" and "disrespectful." Additionally, despite his previous commitment to the free speech rights of would-be flag burners, Martin’s unequivocal statement of support for the counter-protesters runs the risk of making students hesitant to engage in unpopular speech for fear of incurring the opprobrium of administrators.
Readers should be aware that FIRE still labels Louisiana State as a red-light university, as it maintains policies on harassment and bias incidents which unduly restrict the expressive rights of its students. To learn more about FIRE’s Spotlight ratings, click here.
Chancellor Martin was correct to reiterate the free speech rights of both Haas and the counter-protestors. And he was correct to lament the marring of the clash of viewpoints by threats and physical violence. However, his statement underscores the fact that LSU’s commitment to its students’ rights is incomplete and needs further improvement. We hope that this can be a starting point for LSU to examine its commitment to the fundamental rights that underlie the very mission of higher education. Of course, we stand ready to help.