On Oct. 17, Dean of Students Ken McVearry sent an email to the student body emphasizing a policy in the Student Code of Conduct stating that posters may no longer be displayed in dorm windows.
“Residential windows are not intended to serve as personal billboards,” McVearry wrote. He continued, “this is not an issue of freedom of expression but rather an issue of campus aesthetics.”
Upon receiving this email, many students have felt victimized. The email came only a few weeks after Senior Tommy Kyle sent a letter to The Mountain Echo, explaining that he felt his First Amendment right had been violated by being told to take down his campaign sign supporting Donald Trump.
“The school should have been more proactive knowing that a political campaign is going on. This was never an issue on campus before political signs existed. Now that they exist, the school is making the excuse that taking them down is for aesthetic appearance,” said senior Martin Grenchik. “We all know this isn’t the truth.”
Even though the Mount is a private institution, the Student Code of Conduct promises the same principles of the First Amendment. It states, “Mount St. Mary’s University, believing in this concept, will protect the freedom of action and freedom of speech for students, so long as their speech and actions are not of an inflammatory or demeaning nature, are truthful and accurate, and do not interfere with the students’ living and study conditions.”
However, the Code of Conduct also prohibits “posting or display (for external viewing) of any item outside of the window or inside between the blinds and the window.” Earlier in the same document, freedom of speech is promised to all students so long as it does not threaten or endanger anyone at the University.
Dr. Charles Strauss, a history professor, noted that there might be a discrepancy between this policy and the university’s mission. “Robust intellectual expression and debate can be messy,” he said. “Any policy that would privilege a particular aesthetic over students’ ability to participate in these messy but formative discussions, whether in class or through signs and posters, defies our academic mission.”
One student who currently has a Donald Trump sign in his window thinks that this is contradictory. “My sign doesn’t interfere with living and study conditions. It’s just in my window, not hurting anyone,” he told the Echo.
In sitting down with the Echo, McVearry explained that protecting students’ rights is his top priority, but another one of his priorities is making campus appealing to everyone. “Part of what we are trying to do is balance the need to protect students’ rights, and also balancing the need for campus beautification,” McVearry explained.
He continued by emphasizing that for the first time in recent history, the Student Code of Conduct has now listed all protections available to students, including the freedom of speech.
In explaining the relationship of the Mount to freedom of speech, chair of the political science department, Dr. Michael Towle, stated, “The First Amendment is what protects citizens from the government. It does not protect people from their employees or their private institutions. At the same time, I do think that allowing political speech during a presidential campaign would probably be something we would typically see at a university.”
For the case of posters taped onto windows, McVearry added that it comes down to who is taking pleasure from the displays. He mentioned that there is a difference between a poster facing inside of the room for the residents to enjoy and a poster facing the outside, which is not for the residents.
“As a way to split the difference and protect student rights, we’ve said that anything in your room that pertains to your own viewing enjoyment is essentially fine,” said McVearry. “Anything that’s between the blinds and the window, that’s not okay.”
Even with these justifications, many students and professors remain upset.
“Is it bad to see that students at our school care about the issues?” asked Dr. Oakley, professor in the political science department.
Senior Dan Hoff presents a response to this question, saying, “To me, campus aesthetics is more than campus looking pretty. The Mount should celebrate being committed to the rights of students expressing themselves. The campus is prettier when it showcases all forms of diversity, not when it takes it away.”
Strauss agrees with this point. “Aesthetically, the way that walls and windows look demonstrate how dynamic the discussion is on campus.”
McVearry also explained that part of the Mount’s mission is to prepare students for the outside world, where they might move into houses or apartments with restrictions, like a Homeowner’s Association. He mentioned that this policy is merely reflecting what policies students may encounter in the future.
Even still, the policy seems to have not been enforced consistently. Many Halloween decorations and other signage are still taped to apartment windows, days after the email was sent.
“I won’t take down my political sign until everyone removes any and all decorations from their living quarters,” said Grenchik.
Photo courtesy of Tommy Kyle