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Viral video appears to show Trinity College singling out one student’s political dorm display for removal

Gadsden flag with "Don't Tread on Me" written on it

A video of a Trinity College employee removing two conservative flags hanging from a dorm room window suggests the college may be selectively enforcing its dorm display policies based on viewpoint. FIRE wrote to Trinity today, calling on it to make clear it will not discriminate based on viewpoint.

The video, posted by a popular conservative Twitter account, shows a Trinity employee on a ladder outside a student’s dorm window, forcibly removing a Gadsden flag and an American flag featuring red, blue, and green lines — symbols of support for rescue personnel, police, and members of the military, respectively. The employee in the video says other students were told to remove their flags, but does not respond when the student asks why she is only forcibly removing his. 

FIRE wants the answer to that question, too.

In our letter to Trinity today, we remind the college that — while private and not bound by the First Amendment to protect student expression —  it voluntarily promises students “free inquiry and free expression” and says it is committed to “free speech, academic freedom, diversity of thought, and mutual respect.” That means it cannot discriminate against certain viewpoints because some people find them offensive or unfavorable.

Trinity, like all colleges and universities, may establish reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions to ensure safety and order on campus. However, these restrictions must be viewpoint- and content-neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant university interest, and leave open ample alternative channels for communication. Here, while Trinity’s Windows and Screens policy — which states “no objects of any type, (including liquid) may be thrown, dropped, pushed out of, placed outside of, or allowed to fall from any residential building window” — is viewpoint-neutral as written, FIRE is concerned that the college’s application of the policy may be viewpoint-discriminatory.

As we wrote Trinity:

The removal of some flags but not other similarly sized and positioned flags is viewpoint-based. When authorities target “not subject matter but particular views taken by speakers on a subject, the violation [of expressive rights] is all the more blatant.”  While the removed flags may have offended some observers, whether speech is protected under free expression principles is “a legal, not moral, analysis.”

Viewpoint discrimination is an egregious form of censorship that is not permitted at institutions promising free expression. If the college allows some students to hang their flags, regardless of college policy, it must allow all students to do the same. Even better, Trinity could bolster a culture of free expression by lifting the ban on flags altogether, allowing them all to fly. 

And if students object to an expressive display they see, they can use their own free speech rights to criticize it, put up their own, or engage with the students they disagree with to learn more and discuss. After all, competing views are to be expected on a college campus. Trinity should embrace them rather than silencing one side.

We asked Trinity to confirm, both to FIRE and to its students, that it will not selectively enforce its policies based on viewpoint. If students are to trust the college, Trinity must reassure them that it will uphold in practice the rights it guarantees on paper.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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