Confederate flag raises issues, ire at UR
James Goodman and Sean Dobbin
October 24, 2013
A University of Rochester student says college officials violated his right to free expression by forcing him to take down a Confederate flag that he had put in the window of his room on campus.
Matthew Papay also said that the email that two UR deans — Richard Feldman and Matthew Burns — sent to students last Friday misconstrued what happened.
"The deans lied in the email about why I took it down — saying I did so by choice after discussion with fellow students — when in reality the school told me to take it down," said Papay.
"I am from North Carolina and the school is blatantly ignoring my rights to express the cultural identity I choose to identify with, even though the school prides itself on how ‘culturally diverse’ it is."
Burns, dean of students at UR, said on Wednesday that he did not lie, but had incomplete information about the controversy when they sent out the email on Friday.
He also said that the graduate house adviser who told Papay to take down a paper replica of the Confederate flag had "misspoke," and that the replica should have been allowed to stay.
Even though UR is a private college, Burns said there should be no intention to inhibit free expression. "The whole purpose of higher education is to get ideas out there that sometimes are unpalatable," said Burns.
In their email last Friday, Feldman and Burns said that the Confederate flag was taken down from Papay’s bedroom window "after a brief and civil discussion among some of the students involved."
Actually, Papay was told to take the flag down.
The controversy dates back about three weeks when Papay, a 19-year-old sophomore from Weaverville, N.C., put a Confederate flag in his window at a students’ residence hall, located on the Fraternity Quad of the UR campus.
It was up for about a week when, in the days leading up to the university’s Meliora weekend, graduate house adviser Catherine Christian told him to take the flag down. "It is against fire code to hang flags in your room. I will be coming by after my classes today to make sure it is no longer up," she said in an Oct. 11 email to Papay.
Papay responded by asking what provision of the fire guidelines he was violating. Christian responded with an email saying that the flag was acting as a drape, which is not permitted.
He took down the flag but then replaced it with a paper flag after he said that he confirmed with the fire marshal that paper would comply with regulations.
Christian responded with an email saying that her supervisor informed her that people have been complaining because the flag was up again.
"I understand that your flag is up out of pride and you can feel free to leave it up but on a wall of your room," Christian said. "It should not be in the window because of the discomfort it is causing people and because it does not necessarily represent the heritage of the whole house."
Papay was not in his room at the time, but his roommate removed the paper flag.
As word spread about what had happened, a heated discussion took place on a Facebook page associated with the university’s class of 2017.
The 32 pages of comments included a range of remarks, including: "Did this individual or group of people stop and think what that flag symbolizes to black people, to us?"
Another commentator said Papay "clearly isn’t racist or trying to offend anyone," but Facebook comments made by others were clearly derogatory toward African-Americans — and were removed, apparently by students
"They were racist and inappropriate," said Burns about the comments deleted.
Although UR helps administer the Facebook page, Burns said that UR officials did not order anything taken off the site.
Papay weighed in with an essay posted on the Facebook page.
"My name is Matthew Papay and I am the student who posted the flag in the window. . .. I am not a racist. I do not discriminate," wrote Papay at the outset of his essay.
Papay said that the Confederate flag is "used by a small percentage of people in certain hate groups," but that he has "never personally met a southerner who displayed it out of hate," and that he did not put the flag up to offend but as a show of his heritage.
He said that he would not keep it up knowing it is offending people. "But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have the right to put it up," Papay said in the interview.
Some UR students interviewed on campus expressed little doubt that a Confederate flag conveys an inflammatory message.
"There is obviously a lot of people who take offense at the Confederate flag," said Jon Aho, 18 a first-year student from Fairport.
Manon Benisty, 19, a sophomore from South Orange, N.J., added: "I am surprised by it and not happy to hear about it. I would expect this at another school."
But Karen Ruiz, 19, a sophomore from San Antonio, Texas, cautioned that even if the flag is offensive, students should take into account the principles involved.
"If I want certain rights to be given to me, I shouldn’t take away others’ rights," she said.
The deans’ page-long email focused on the Facebook comments.
"While much of the ‘dialogue’ on the page is civil and respectful, several comments are clearly inappropriate and offensive. These comments are in no way a reflection of the college’s views," wrote the deans.
The email concludes by saying that in coming days and weeks "the college will engage students and other members of our community in dialogues and restorative circles to address these questions."
Burns said that three of the students who wrote derogatory comments have been asked to meet with college officials.
"We are going to talk with them," said Burns, who doesn’t expect disciplinary action. He also expects to have forums on campus where race relations can be aired.
A number of experts on the First Amendment note that private colleges don’t have to give the same constitutional protections as public colleges.
But Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, at Syracuse University, went on to say: "Does it really flow with the purpose of the college to suppress offensive speech?"