Opinion | 8/25/2004
When H.K. Edgerton walked onto campus Monday morning, Confederate flag in hand, he knew what he was doing.
A former president of the Asheville, N.C., chapter of the NAACP and lifetime member of the Texas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Edgerton has been advocating Southern culture (and the flag) for years. From Oct. 2002 to Jan. 2003, he even walked the roughly 1,500 miles from Asheville to Austin to raise Southern cultural awareness and show support for the flag.
While Edgerton claimed he came to UT simply to view the Confederate statues that adorn the campus, the fact that he was carrying the rebel flag as he did it shows he was really trying to bring attention to the opinion he’s been defending for years.
Some would say he got what he was asking for when the University issued him a criminal trespass warning for displaying the Confederate flag near the South Mall. But the University’s treatment of Edgerton illustrates a major flaw in the administration’s free speech policy.
The first sentence of said policy recognizes the freedoms of speech, assembly and expression as "fundamental rights of all persons and are central to the mission of the University." The policy then goes on to only protect those rights for UT students, faculty and staff. This statement indirectly implies that somehow Edgerton’s right to symbolic speech does not fit into the University’s mission, which includes "scholarly inquiry and the development of new knowledge."
This contradiction should not stand.
The University is not an island. Allowing debate from outside the campus walls can only improve dialogue by expanding the volume of arguments. Given that UT is a public university, it’s campus should be publicly available for anyone who wishes to use his or her constitutional right to free speech.
Note that opening the doors to outside influence is no free pass to those who wish to disrupt the nature of open-minded debate. Just as those protected under University policy are prohibited from expression that is considered to be obscene, defamatory, harassment or incitement, outside influences should be held to an equal standard.
While the Confederate flag has painful connotations for many, it is by no means obscene or defamatory. Neither was Edgerton using the flag to incite or harass. As Edgerton demonstrated, debate over the modern context of the flag is still open. Given the fact that the University is a virtual mecca of Confederate tributes, what better place to conduct this scholarly inquiry?