ACADEMIC FREEDOM, ADAM KISSEL
Auburn University has discriminated against a student by ordering him to remove a Ron Paul banner from his dormitory window. Although the university has nominally instituted a “total ban” on window decorations, a dozen or more other window decorations have been permitted. Moreover, the university has failed to provide any evidence that such a total ban is necessary. FIRE has asked Auburn to justify its both lax and discriminatory enforcement of the “total ban” on this form of student expression.
On November 7, Auburn University ordered a Ron Paul for President campaign banner removed from the inside of undergraduate Eric Philips’ dorm room window. Philips used his iPad to gather photographic evidence of the double standard and came to FIRE for help. FIRE sent a letter to Auburn President Jay Gogue on December 9, informing him of the unconstitutional double standard apparently in place at Auburn and noting that “such selective enforcement and viewpoint-based discrimination is untenable at Auburn, a public university bound by the First Amendment.”
More than two months after ordering Philips to remove his banner, however, Auburn has failed to remedy its double standard. Auburn Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Amy Hecht responded to FIRE on December 13, insisting that Auburn is “committed to the consistent and nondiscriminatory enforcement of this policy.” But it is now more than a month later, and additional photos taken by Philips last week show that a dozen or more window decorations remain posted or hanging all over Auburn’s residence halls.
FIRE wrote Auburn a second time today, pointing out that “given Auburn’s lax enforcement of the rule, it is doubtful that any purported interest [in the ‘total ban’] is in fact significant. Further, Auburn’s selective enforcement of this ‘total ban’ raises questions about the policy’s content neutrality in practice.”
It bears remembering that during the 2008 election season, the University of Texas at Austin attempted to enforce a similar policy banning all signs in residence hall windows. Two students were ordered to remove campaign signs from their windows or else be blocked from class registration. The resulting uproar led UT-Austin President William Powers Jr. to suspend the rule indefinitely, saying, “I believe that the free expression of ideas is crucial to our educational mission.” Auburn’s cross-state rival, the University of Alabama, also abandoned a ban on window displays in 2003 after students protested the ban by hanging American flags all over a dormitory. Why do Auburn students deserve fewer rights than ‘Bama students? Auburn refuses to provide a satisfactory answer.
As these other universities have recognized, a total ban on window displays is an unjustifiable and unnecessary restraint on expression. Auburn’s ban is not only wrong, it’s ripe for abuse-and it is in fact being abused.
Used with the permission of The Foundation for Educational Rights in Education.