Imagine, if you will, that the resident assistant (RA) in your college dorm decided—after hearing one too many jokes made at someone else’s expense while roaming the hallways—to forbid all use of the spoken word. At least, for a time, the silence would have the point of teaching students a lesson. Ridiculous, right? That’s grade school stuff.
Alas, that’s not a far cry from how the residence hall staff at Seton Hall University (SHU) in New Jersey is tackling a spate of vandalism in SHU’s Xavier Hall: not only emptying common areas of all postings, but even ordering students to remove all decorations from their doorways. An RA informed the residents over the weekend:
Starting tomorrow, November 1st[,] we are doing an Anti-Vandalism Campaign, the entire building. So there will be NO door decs, NO bulletin boards, nothing. The reason why is that we have been having vandalism complaints and the RA’s On Duty always see some type of vandalism which is why we are doing this, to deter those who have done it.
I know it[‘]s horrible but it is only for a while so whenever you get the chance, PLEASE take down your door decs and put them in the room. For those that have really cool door decs, the same goes for you. Later tonight I will knock on your doors telling you to take down your door decs. If you’re not there, I’ll take them down myself and slide them under the door. Please cooperate with me and the rest of the building staff on this initiative, it will benefit in the end. [Emphases added.]
As a result, students are now treated to sights such as this when walking through their dorm:
Common area bulletin boards such as the one above are maintained by the residence hall staff. At the risk of boring their students to death, they are free to self-censor. As noted above, though, they have taken their voluntary vows of abstinence and forced them on the residents:
The campaign, according to the RA, will last until November 15. In a follow-up e-mail, the RA cited "ripped door decs and disregard for the building such as eggs being thrown" as spurring action on the staff’s part.
Let’s be clear: ripping down a fellow student’s door decorations is not protected expression, and FIRE frequently calls on universities to make clear to their students that they may not simply remove and destroy others’ postings at will. And those who consider egg throwing as a legitimate method of communication would do well to remember this helpful reminder:
So, the no-decoration policy is partly a sham. It is really a one-decoration-only policy—the one decoration that the authorities have privileged. (This "official" anti-vandalism bulletin board appears in Xavier’s main lobby, and also contains messages such as "You’re in college, leave the fingerpainting to the kindergartners!")
The photos taken here are courtesy of Cynthia Bell, a 2010 FIRE summer intern and current resident of Xavier Hall. When Cynthia asked the RA for more details on the campaign, the RA responded:
The entire staff came to a consensus of putting this campaign to show whoever did this to stop and to show that what we do is hard work and time consuming and it is all for you. You wouldn’t want to have a building with no decorations which is why RA’s do door decs and bulletin boards to make it homely [sic] and comfortable. So that’s the reason why. I hope you can understand this initiative and I apologize for the inconv[en]ience but it must be done to send a message. Thanks.
This reminds me of the unilateral "time out" that froze funding to all student media organizations at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), enacted by UCSD Associated Students President Utsav Gupta with the blessing and terrible advice of UCSD’s counsel. The action at UCSD—in response to allegedly offensive expression—was both blatantly unconstitutional and just plain dumb. As for Seton Hall, what ever happened to its free speech promises?
I do sympathize with the RA here—I certainly would be frustrated to find my efforts to beautify the living space for my students ripped down or covered in egg yolk. But what is the "message" the residence hall is trying to send here? That the best approach is to let the students who are the least mature and least respectful of the property of others dictate students’ abilities to express themselves? Granted, a more-speech response would take some work on the part of the staff, but would it not send a stronger message to let the vandals know that the residents won’t let them interfere with students’ quality of life? The answer to bad speech, as we always say, is more speech, not less, and certainly not none.