Freedom of Expression vs. Campus Aesthetics

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

Rebecca Schisler

News Editor for The Mountain Echo

7 thoughts on “Freedom of Expression vs. Campus Aesthetics

  • October 26, 2016 at 1:53 am
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    I am an alumni of the Mount and was a political science major. Freedom of speech is a topic that has been of great interest to me for many years. As far as I know, Dr. Towle is spot on – the First Amendment, as it is currently interpreted, only prevents the government from censoring the expression of viewpoints. Private organizations such as Mount St. Mary’s are not bound by the First Amendment. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), students at private colleges are not without recourse. The Code of Student Conduct represents a legally binding contract between the Mount and its students. If the Code promises freedom of expression, then the administration may be guilty of a breach of contract for attempting to violate the terms of that contract. However, if the Code also specifies an exception to the policy, naming something (in this case, window signs) that are NOT considered freedom of expression by the Mount, then the student would be bound by this term as well (akin to reading the “fine print” on a contract).
    While I agree with Dr. Towle that this is the current interpretation of the First Amendment, I do not agree that it is the correct interpretation. In my opinion, all organizations, be they public, private, for-profit, or non-profit, should be bound by the First Amendment, as they are all, without exception, beneficiaries of the government services provided for by our collective tax dollars. Here are some examples: All students, virtually without exception, will at some point use U.S. Route 15 to get on and off campus. The existence of this highway, paid for and maintained courtesy of our tax dollars, is essential to the Mount’s revenue stream. If a crime is committed on campus and it is more than Public Safety can handle, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office will be summoned to deal with the situation. Who do you think pays their salaries? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the Catholic Church. Many students are only attending the Mount due to the reception of federal student aid from the Department of Education, a federal agency which costs the U.S. taxpayers over $100 billion annually.
    If my tax dollars and yours are going to support government programs which make it possible for private organizations like the Mount to exist, then why shouldn’t such organizations be bound by the same standards to which the government itself is bound? And before anyone makes the “private organizations can manage their affairs however they see fit” argument, let me remind you that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 mandated that private organizations comply with various standards regarding racial and gender equality. The government’s power to regulate interstate commerce was invoked to justify this law. And since every organization – for-or-non-profit – engages in some sort of interstate commerce, the same power could be invoked here.
    I hope that we one day feel as a society as strongly about protecting people’s First Amendment rights as we do today about stopping racial and gender discrimination, and that the argument that a private organization can do as it sees fit is done away with for good.

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  • October 26, 2016 at 8:33 am
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    Grenchik is right. The mount didn’t care about any of this up until last year. Again, I’ll cite the “Team Newman” signs that polluted all the windows last year. Same policy was on paper, but no one enforced it.

    Additionally, students had signs in their window supporting Governor Hogan. No one said did anything about it then. Why? Because nothing was wrong with it aside from it violating a completely ridiculous rule that hasn’t been enforced until this year.

    Does the Mount have a right to hold and enforce this rule? Absolutely. But it seems to me this is only an issue now because both of the candidates in the presidential race are so polarizing and disliked by many (Especially the RA’s, apparently!). If the Mount starts enforcing this rule, they better commit to enforcing this rule down the road. But I would like to see people be able to display signs or flags from their windows. Maybe this should be an issue the SGA should address and fight for.

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  • October 26, 2016 at 3:53 pm
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    I’m a member of the class of 2007, and this doesn’t sit well with me. One thing that especially stands out to me is the comment about preparing students for a future where they won’t be permitted to put signs in their home windows. Really? REALLY? That’s a lazy and weak argument. I’m reasonably certain that should students move into a Homeowner’s Association type of situation later in life, they’ll be able to adequately understand the guidelines. I work for the Office of Student Life in an urban institution, and nothing pleases me more than to see students hanging signs expressing their views. Students should feel empowered to express their opinions however they see fit. With all of the things happening on campuses and in the world today, I hardly think this policy warrants serious enforcement, especially given that this has not been seriously enforced in the past.

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  • October 26, 2016 at 3:53 pm
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    I worked on a Congressional campaign while at the Mount and posted my candidate’s sign in my apartment window. Was promptly told to take it down. This was in 2005 or 2006. So as you can see this rule has been around, and enforced, for a long time.

    Reply
  • October 28, 2016 at 6:39 am
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    I put aln anti-abortion sign in my window in Bicen in 2010, and I was told to take it down because it violated a fire code. I called the Emmitsburg Fire Company and found out that that was a lie. There was no such fire code. At least now Res Life is being honest with students as to why their freedom of expression rights are being violated instead of lying to them about why like they did in my time. I guess that’s a step up. Still, I think students should disregard this policy, at least until the election is over. It hasn’t been enforced consistently and it’s stated reasons for existing keep changing. I doubt they’re going to expel a student for violating this policy. If any students do get harassed by the administration over this, try contacting FIRE (www.thefire.org). These are the people that helped expose the Mount last winter when President Newman was going on his anti free speech crusade, so the Mount is already on their radar.

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  • October 29, 2016 at 1:14 pm
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    If the Mount gave a hoot in hell about it’s “aesthetic appearance”, they would have gotten rid of that waste of money, ugly a** Solar Farm across Route 15. This is about the liberal lean on campus and censorship.

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  • November 2, 2016 at 11:57 am
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    As the lawful owners of the campus buildings, the University has the legal right to impress standards on tenants to protect their assets. The University could have used better language in expressing its desire protect their property to the students.

    While the University may be enforcing standards at student residences, a discrepancy is apparent in other housing. The University owns a house on Saint Anthony Road. The present tenant, supposedly, is a University administrator. The tenant hangs a controversial flag that shares a message that contradicts the teachings of the Catholic Church.

    Again, this house on Saint Anthony Road is owned by the University (confirmed by Frederick County Real Estate Tax Records). The tenant simply resides in the house and is not the owner. The University holds the privileges and responsibilities of ownership for this property.

    In light of Ms. Schisler’s article on “Expression vs. Aesthetics”, I invite her and the Mountain Echo staff to investigate this discrepancy and to hold the Administration accountable in its enforcement of rules. If the campus cares about its property protection rights afforded to them by law and its concern of upholding the teachings of the Church as a Catholic university, it will seek that the tenant not cast their flag on University property. If not, the University should re-examine its policies regarding the display of signs on residential windows.

    Editor’s Note: This comment has been edited to remove the color of the house and the street address number for privacy reasons. No other aspect of this comment has been altered.

    Reply

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