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Sinclair Community College: Signs Just Too Dangerous for Campus

Believe it or not, Sinclair Community College (SCC) is insisting that its unconstitutional sign ban is all about student safety. Here's SCC President Steven Lee Johnson, as quoted in today's Dayton Daily News

Johnson told the Dayton Daily News that Sinclair, which has about 23,000 students at its downtown campus, is committed to being "a bastion of free speech" and the open exchange of ideas. "For God's sake, this is a college campus," he said. "It's an American college campus."

But Johnson said the police "have the latitude to make decisions about those things that would affect the safety and security of the situation," including banning signs. 

As a reasonable person, you may be asking yourself: What dangers could possibly be posed by signs on campus? Do poorly made signs carry a significant risk of splinters? Are heavy signs causing back strain in ardent student protesters? Some sort of paper cut epidemic?  

No. According to President Johnson, SCC's ban on signs is necessary to protect its students from terrorism.

Yes, terrorism.

According to the Dayton Daily News, when asked about the sign ban and the federal lawsuit, Johnson cited headlines about domestic terrorism—specifically, the Columbine High School and Virginia Tech tragedies—as a justification for the sign ban, insisting that the censorship is necessary to ensure student safety during these troubled times.

If this seems bizarre, it gets even stranger when Johnson qualifies his position, apparently trying to square this blanket ban on signs with the Constitution. After referencing terrorism and school shootings, Johnson continued: 

Although Johnson said he can't imagine how "words on (a) sign would make a person unsafe," he did say protest signs could be used as weapons.

"It has nothing to do with what was printed on those objects," he said, "but what those objects could be used for."

Apparently, there's a strong link between handheld signs and terrorism. So if you're attending a baseball game this week, be warned: That person next to you trying to get on SportsCenter with a handwritten poster might as well be holding a dirty bomb. 

Yes, Torch readers, Johnson is asking you to make the long, long jump from the tragic events at Columbine and Virginia Tech to his college's untenable ban on student signs. Try not to laugh. Unfortunately, Johnson's just the latest in a long line of campus censors to ask: "What can the Virginia Tech tragedy do for me?"

The idea that a blanket ban on signs is necessary to ensure campus safety is ridiculous. I don't know how many student rallies President Johnson has actually attended in his lifetime, but this isn't the Battle of Hastings we're talking about. Signs at rallies are typically paper and cardboard affairs, maybe held up by a dowel or ruler. These vehicles for campus expression couldn't withstand a strong gust of wind, let alone whatever dystopian riot scenario that President Johnson apparently envisions consuming his campus in a whirlwind of destruction. 

I mean, come on: Most students probably own a laptop or a heavy book that could do more damage than a violently wielded protest sign, and students carry those everywhere. And if the SCC policy is focused on the presumption that these signs are physically dangerous, the SCC police department was doing a disservice to community safety when they made protesters put down their signs instead of flat-out confiscating them. (Couldn't they just pick up their signs and whap people with them?) 

Hey, you know what? It's almost like the ban on signs has nothing to do with safety and was instead purposely designed to prevent students from expressing themselves! 

If you think Johnson's reasoning is highly suspect, you're not alone. As University of Dayton law professor Richard Saphire told the Daily News

"The university does have some ability to restrict speech based on public safety," he said. But "it's hard to see how a flat ban on signs could be at all related to legitimate public safety interest. I guess you could say 'no signs mounted on swords' because you're not concerned about the signs, but the thing it's attached to."

Professor Saphire's right. No signs on swords is one thing. No signs whatsoever is quite another.  

Of course, FIRE has blogged extensively about SCC's unwritten, unconstitutional policy banning signs on campus. Indeed, SCC is now facing a federal lawsuit over its violation of First Amendment rights after campus police made participants put down their signs at a June 8 "Stand Up for Religious Freedom" rally. In the wake of a U.S. District Court decision invalidating another Ohio public university's restrictive speech code—a decision that explicitly rejects the same argument SCC is clinging to (PDF) for justification—SCC seems to be getting even more desperate in its defense of its blatantly unconstitutional sign ban.

But if you're worried that this sign ban signals SCC doesn't value its students' rights, President Johnson has a message for you: Don't worry about it. Johnson assured the Dayton Daily News that SCC is "a bastion of free speech." Sure. Just don't try to display signs there. Or distribute literature. But other than that, SCC is totally a bastion of free speech.

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