This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on August 29, 2017.
If you thought Texas was immune to the campus madness spreading near-daily across America, consider the case of Southern Methodist University (SMU). This summer, the Dallas university seemed ready to leap aboard the bandwagon of censorship and intolerance. That it ultimately retreated from this illiberal undertaking should give confidence to its friends and alums and, more importantly, to friends of freedom everywhere.
As reported on its website, in July, the SMU chapter of the conservative student group, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), filed a request for the use of “Dallas Hall Lawn, a central location on campus” where, for the past two years, YAF has hosted the “9/11: Never Forget Project.” The Project display consists of 2,977 American flags, which “represent each of the 2,977 Americans murdered by Al Qaeda terrorists in September 2001.” There appeared to be no reason why this, its third request, would not be approved again.
However, on July 24, YAF received an email from SMU’s administration announcing that the school had altered its policy. “The email informed YAF that displays are now forbidden on Dallas Hall Lawn, and would instead be relegated to MoMac Park,” which YAF regards as “a location unquestionably less visible and further removed from students’ everyday activities. Dallas Hall Lawn is a busy thriving hub of activity,” which “functions as the central forum of SMU’s campus. MoMac Park does not.”
Why the change in policy? This is where things appeared to go from bad to worse—before they got much better—for the administration.
To provide some background, SMU—according to the nonpartisan free-speech watchdog, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)—already is suspect when it comes to protecting free speech. FIRE grades SMU with a “speech code rating Yellow,” which indicates that the school has “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.” To be fair, there is a worse grade that FIRE provides—a “Red Light,” which a number of Texas universities currently receive, among them, two publics, UT-Austin and the University of Houston, and one private, Rice University. A “Red Light” rating means, quoting FIRE’s website, that the school “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
This is not the first time that SMU has tussled with YAF; the latter’s websiteavers that the school had objected to a prior version of the Memorial, citing scheduling and logistical obstacles. The new policy, announced at the end of July, stated, “While the University respects the rights of students to free speech, the University respects the right of members of the community to avoid messages that are triggering, harmful, or harassing” (emphasis mine).
For the sake of not offending anyone, the Memorial would be moved from its prior place of prominence.