By Joseph Berger at The New York Times
Symbols — their meaning, history and power to hurt — have been a volatile topic across the country this summer, and college campuses have not escaped the storm.
The Confederate flag became a target of outrage after the massacre of nine African-Americans at a historic church in Charleston, S.C., and the emergence of photos of the accused gunman waving the flag. Amid calls to remove the symbol from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds, statues of Civil War figures at campuses in Chapel Hill, N.C., and Austin, Tex., were spray-painted with the message “Black Lives Matter.”
Symbols associated with bias and oppression have, in fact, been a flash point on campuses for years. Months before the killings, the student government of the University of Texas had passed a resolution demanding that the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, be removed from the Main Mall. The statue was one of three vandalized in June, leading the university to form a task force to evaluate its statuary.
Several recent examples illustrate the conundrum universities face. Last semester, a Jewish student at the George Washington University placed a small bronze swastika on the bulletin board at his historically Jewish fraternity. He was suspended and the case referred to the police as a possible hate crime.
While there have been numerous instances of swastikas drawn as anti-Semitic intimidation, in this case the object was not the Nazi emblem but a variant, a Hindu and Buddhist sign of auspiciousness. In May, the student was allowed to return to school but on disciplinary probation.
Another image of racism — a noose hanging from a branch, on the Duke campus — led to an outcry in April when the university accepted theapology from the student who put it up. The student said he had been creating a visual pun on “hanging out” with friends and was ignorant of its association with lynching.
The questions are complicated: What should students be exposed to? Does context matter in displaying that which offends? How should universities respond and, particularly in the South, what to do about symbols that are intertwined with a campus’s history and identity?
PROTECTING STUDENTS FROM OFFENS
Colleges must acknowledge that memorials to slavery advocates “might be hurtful to their students and should take proactive measures to remove them or address these sentiments,” says Mitchell J. Chang, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research focuses on campus diversity programs. “For African-American students, these are reminders that they are second-class citizens, that there’s a certain racial order in the country’s history and that it’s still playing out on campus.”
Students who display imagery that offends, he says, would benefit from the “teachable moments” that can ensue if they are challenged, he says. Last fall, two women at Bryn Mawr mounted a Confederate flag in their dormitory as an expression of Southern pride and declined to take it down until angry demonstrations erupted.
“Students are often naïve about what that flag means to other people, that others may view it as very aggressive behavior,” Dr. Chang says. “This is why students come to college, to learn that their interpretation of a symbol may not be universally shared by everyone. By the time they leave college, they should understand what the repercussions may be.”
Echoing that view, Benjamin D. Reese Jr., a vice president and chief diversity officer at Duke, emphasizes that in a multicultural world, students need to understand the nuanced “difference between intention and impact.”
The student at the George Washington University who put up the swastika had told friends that after a trip to India he was intrigued that a beneficent symbol could be transformed into one of bigotry and wanted to hash it out with fellow students. But critics suggested that a swastika unexplained has the power to instill fear and intimidate students who are a minority on their campuses and far from the cushioning of home.
Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, says objectionable symbols can be part of a university’s two missions: instruction — illustrating, say, lessons about the Second World War or Civil War — and research. “Otherwise,” he says, “the university should have a fair amount of discretion in regulating the use of symbols” and “is fully justified in imposing rules that respect the sensitivity of students.”
“Most students,” he says, “are away from home for the first time and not used to living on their own.” Young students need to be prepared for real-world hostilities “in a gradual way.” If these had been graduate students, he believes, “there’s a stronger argument for letting anything go.”
SAFEGUARDING FREE SPEECH
Those who take a more expansive view of free speech insist that officials often overreact in their eagerness not to offend. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education was quick to remind the George Washington University that even Nazi-style swastikas are protected by the First Amendment.
State schools cannot ban them under constitutional free-speech protections unless displayed in the course of an illegality, like vandalism or “a threat of imminent violence,” says John F. Banzhaf III, a professor of law at G.W. While the courts have given private organizations more leeway, he says, as a practical matter private colleges would also be subject to the constitutional law because their handbooks boast of respecting free speech.
And no crime had been committed by the G.W. student to justify the president’s call for a hate-crime investigation, Mr. Banzhaf says, acknowledging that the president, Stephen Knapp, might have acted reflexively after being criticized just a few weeks earlier for not responding forcefully to swastika vandalism. What would one do, he wonders, if a Hindu student displayed a swastika as a spiritual statement of hopefulness?
Free-speech advocates worry that such excessive caution regarding uncomfortable iconography will dovetail with the contemporary trend of alerting students to potentially disturbing material — so-called trigger warnings.
“We’re in a period of hysteria about words and symbols and an inability to understand the context in which words and symbols are used,” says Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and free-speech advocate.
Referring to the student’s desire to stimulate discussion by displaying a swastika, educators note that this is precisely the kind of thorny exercise universities must foster.
For a time, at least, the University of Texas’s Confederate statuary is inspiring just such a debate. Two campuswide forums have been held on moving Jefferson Davis’s likeness, and its task force is commissioned “to analyze the artistic, social and political intent of the statuary,” as well as the “university’s role as an educational and research institution.”
Mark Auslander, professor of anthropology at Central Washington University and author of “The Accidental Slave-owner,” sees the iconography as a springboard for “critically examining history.” Virtually every venerable university has links to the slave trade, he says, so “there’s no way you can purify that history and deny it.”
Besides, he says, universities exist to forge “enlightened citizens and moral leaders who have the capacity to listen to each other and arrive at reasoned judgments, and to understand the relationship between hate speech and free speech.”
Joseph Berger is a former staff reporter at The Times and author of “The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles With America.”