Southern Methodist University student groups, governor unite against new memorial lawn display regulations

August 4, 2017

Since 2015, the Southern Methodist University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom has honored the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks by displaying 2,977 American flags on the campus’ Dallas Hall Lawn. But when the group sought approval this year for the recurring memorial honoring each life lost on 9/11, they received an unexpected response from the university detailing a new policy which would move the display to the less-trafficked MoMac Park.

While university policies regulating the location of large physical displays may be acceptable if written in a viewpoint- and content-neutral way, the policy sent to the YAF chapter contains clauses that raise concerns about the policy’s intent.

The policy states: “The university respects the rights of all members of the SMU community to express their opinions. The University also respects the right of all members of the community to avoid messages that are triggering, harmful, or harassing.” The policy then goes on to quarantine all “memorial lawn displays,” defined as “any type of visual recognition or commemoration of an event or political or social issue,” to MoMac Park.

By targeting “triggering, harmful, or harassing” displays commemorating any “event or political or social issue,” SMU is treading on shaky ground. While SMU is a private institution, the university promises it students a “commitment to freedom of speech and expression.” SMU must honor that promise by removing this policy. If SMU’s commitment is to mean anything, student displays cannot be limited because of their content or the unpredictable, subjective feelings of viewers.

In an August 1 tweet, SMU stated that it had updated the policy to remove “the poor wording regarding triggering or harmful messages.”

On August 2, an updated statement claimed that the wording “was added earlier in July and had not gone through the appropriate approval process.” While SMU may receive some benefit of the doubt, the policy version sent to YAF and published on a now-removed page of SMU’s site, leaves questions about the policy’s intent.

In response, on August 1, the SMU YAF chapter posted the text of a letter condemning the policy on the group’s Facebook page. The letter — signed by the leadership of YAF, Mustangs for Life, the College Republicans, Turning Point USA, the College Democrats, and the Feminist Equality Movement states:

While we understand that displays are still permitted, this new location is far less prominent than the iconic Dallas Hall Lawn, which thousands of students, faculty and local residents pass by every day and serves as the heart of our campus. This is disappointing considering that the purpose of the many displays that our organizations construct is to generate respectful, diverse dialogue so that our campus will be a center for thoughtful and engaging discussion that inspires and informs the ‘World Changers’ we are all striving to become.

FIRE applauds these student groups for reaching across the ideological divide to condemn a policy that would hinder their ability to express themselves on campus.  

Additionally, on August 2, Texas Governor Greg Abbott wrote the university, urging it to honor YAF’s original request to have the display on Dallas Hall Lawn. Unfortunately, SMU President R. Gerald Turner responded that same day without addressing the problematic clauses of the policy or student concerns about decreased traffic. Instead, he attempted to explain that “the new location is, in fact, in the heart of campus, not ‘a far corner of campus.’ Therefore, if the heart of campus is where it should be, MoMac Park would fit that description more than Dallas Hall since Dallas Hall is one of our northern-most buildings.” While President Turner may be technically right about MoMac Park being the “physical” heart of campus, his response ignores student concerns about MoMac Park being a less trafficked area.

FIRE will continue to monitor this situation.

Schools:  Southern Methodist University