Student activists discuss universities’ limits on free speech

For KRT Campus

WASHINGTON — Conservative campus activists complained Friday that since Sept. 11 university administrators have stifled displays of patriotism and support for the war on terrorism.

In a panel organized by the conservative group Accuracy in Academia, three student activists told stories of how they felt their speech rights were hampered on campus.

“Patriotism at the University of Michigan was suppressed by political correctness,” said U-M student Allison Tarr. “After 9/11, we were hit by a barrage of anti-war demonstrations, which only reinforced the repugnant anti-American image of Ann Arbor.”

Tarr said that the Diag, the main area on the U-M campus where students demonstrate with university permission, saw many displays and expressions of understanding for Muslims and the Islamic world, but little expression of sorrow for the men and women killed on Sept. 11.

“Instead of encouraging women to don Muslim headdresses, why not encourage people to wear flags?” Tarr asked.

Arizona State University student Oubai Shahbandar said things were worse on his campus. On Sept. 26, a large American flag was hung in one of the residence halls, but it was taken down by the administration, Shahbandar said.

The administration claimed that the flag would be offensive to the many international and Muslim students who resided in the hall.

Shahbandar, who was born in Damascus, Syria, and moved to the United States with his family at age 7, objected to the university’s action. He proposed a resolution in the student senate to put the flag back up, but it was defeated. He continued to make noise, causing ASU to lose $1 million in alumni contributions.

“Finally, the university acquiesced and put the flag back up,” Shahbandar said. “We won a small victory in the culture war.”

But the battle over campus speech is not new, said Thor L. Halvorssen, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a legal group that works to protect the individual rights of students and professors in universities.

“The assault on freedom of speech on campuses has been going on for 15 years,” Halvorssen said. Restrictions take the form of speech codes and zones of free speech on campus. “It’s only after Sept. 11 that people are starting to notice it more.”

Halvorssen said that both pro-war and anti-war students and professors sought FIRE’s legal help.

“We had a number of people who came to us with their cases who expressed a desire to take immediate military action or hoist the American flag and express their patriotic spirit,” Halvorssen said. “There were many more cases of that type than speech calling for restrained action or who said the U.S. was to blame in some way.”

Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, disagreed.

“Controversial positions taken on international affairs have not suffered greatly since Sept. 11,” Kurland said. “What has been much more of a problem is the great slew of steps taken in terms of federal legislation.” Kurland referred to the Patriot Act and other counterterrorism measures that he felt would hamper intellectual freedom.

Kurland did say that “there is an atmosphere of intense bitterness” on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, with Jewish-American and Arab-American students taking the other side’s views very personally.

“There’s a degree of incivility or worse that is very bothersome and has appeared in a number of college campuses in that regard,” Kurland said.

Whether conservative or liberal, “Nowhere do you have a right not to be offended,” Halvorssen said. “People offend each other all the time — it’s called debate.”

The student panel, “Campus Anti-Americanism in the Wake of 9/11,” was part of a four-day conference called Conservative University, which featured an array of speakers and events for the dozens of college students who paid to attend. The conference also was organized by Accuracy in Academia.
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© 2002, McClatchy/Tribune Information Services