January 16, 2012
President Jay Gogue
Office of the President
107 Samford Hall
Auburn, Alabama 36849
Sent via U.S. Mail and Facsimile (334-844-6179)
Dear President Gogue:
FIRE has received Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Amy Hecht’s December 13, 2011, response to our December 9 letter regarding Auburn University’s selective censorship of student Eric Philips’ political expression. We are writing you again because Auburn has continued to fail to evenly enforce its policy prohibiting dormitory window decorations.
Philips was required to remove his Ron Paul banner last term, yet Philips has documented more than a dozen ongoing violations of the policy in photographs taken this week. These include an Auburn banner, a large sheet promoting a campus Greek organization, a cartoon image of a human skull, and a sign reading, "Let it snow!"—all of which are covering windows. (Photos are enclosed.) Such selective enforcement of Auburn’s policy is a violation of Philips’ due process rights.
In addition, the policy itself—what Hecht calls a "total ban" on window decorations—is constitutionally suspect. A college may establish "reasonable time, place and manner" restrictions on speech as allowed by cases such as Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989), yet Auburn has thus far not explained how this total ban is reasonable. Further, to pass constitutional muster, "time, place and manner" restrictions must be "narrowly tailored" to serve a significant governmental interest, leaving open ample alternative channels for communication—and must be content neutral. A "total ban" on window decorations of any type is not narrowly tailored, and it is unclear what, if any, significant governmental interest is being served by Auburn’s ban. Indeed, given Auburn’s lax enforcement of the rule, it is doubtful that any purported interest is in fact significant. Further, Auburn’s selective enforcement of this "total ban" raises questions about the policy’s content neutrality in practice.
FIRE asks that Auburn reconsider its total ban on window decorations. We reiterate the noble principle, as stated by the U.S. Supreme Court, that "speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government," reflecting "our profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide- open." Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 74-75 (1964) (internal quotations omitted).
At the very least, whatever ban Auburn chooses must be enforced consistently. FIRE asks that Auburn University explain its “Windows” policy and revise it to maximally allow expression on campus consistent with a great university’s role as a “marketplace of ideas.” Please spare Auburn from a continuing fight against the Bill of Rights.
We ask for a response to this letter by February 6, 2012.
Vice President of Programs
Ainsley Carry, Vice President for Student Affairs, Auburn University
Amy Hecht, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, Auburn University
Kim Trupp, Director, Housing and Residence Life, Auburn University
Nick Wiard, Village Area Director, Auburn University