Student rights questioned in Confederate flag controversy
Story by Mike Gerrity | September 11, 2009
He could have let it go when the RA told him to take it down. Nobody else gets to hang stuff on the study lounge balcony anyway. What difference would it make?
As Kyle Johnson stepped outside the study lounge of the fourth floor of Knowles Hall, his temporary room, and began to take down the Confederate flag he hung on the railing, he said a group of about 25 people below started to cheer.
“So I just put it back up,” he said. “The surrender of liberty should not be met with applause.”
But because he left it up, the right for students to display symbols of their choosing from the windows of their dorms is now up in the air.
Johnson, 20, transferred over to the University of Montana this year as a freshman from Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Va. Back home in Virginia, he said, the Confederate flag was everywhere. It was often hung outside fraternity houses at his old school.
Having grown up in Winchester, a town that changed hands over 70 times during the Civil War, and having lost several members of his family in the five-year strife, Johnson said the flag to him is a symbol of his heritage and a piece of America’s history.
“It’s no different than flying a state flag, in my opinion,” he said.
Johnson’s RA asked him to take down the flag the balcony, citing a University policy that prohibits hanging banners, flags, pictures and posters from the outside of buildings. Ron Brunell, director of Residence Life, said rare exceptions are made when it comes to UM spirit banners – those bearing messages like “Go Griz.”
“Our policy is regardless of the banner,” Brunell said.
But when Johnson sent an e-mail to Brunell, he advised Johnson to consider what the flag could represent to other students on campus.
“Unfortunately, symbols of the Confederacy do have the potential for eliciting fear in individuals or groups whose members have been the targets of bigotry, sometimes expressed through violence, sometimes by insults, threats and external limits on their freedoms,” Brunell wrote.
Johnson said his fondness for the stars and bars has nothing to do with hatred or intolerance, but that it is a part of our nation’s history that cannot be ignored.
“I understand slavery is a terrible thing, but that was already 150 plus years ago, so I think its time we all move on,” he said. “I wouldn’t fly it to be a bigot or a racist.”
When Johnson re-hung the flag in the window on the door of the study lounge balcony, he said RAs once again asked him to remove it.
When he refused, Johnson said they threatened to write him up for non-compliance. After telling them that he felt it was a freedom of speech issue, he said the RAs backed off and told him to discuss it with Brunell at the Residence Life Office.
Derrick Budd, assistant head resident of Knowles Hall, said that as an RA, he could not comment for this story.
Johnson said he feels the RAs are injecting their own opinions in pressuring him to remove the flag, which he calls unprofessional. He said he contacted Fox News and other 24-hour news commentators like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.
“I’m certainly a victim of the system,” Johnson said.
Brunell said that because the window where Johnson hung the flag is visible from the outside of the study lounge, it is considered public space and is not a permissible place to hang banners, even though the interior of the study lounge counts as Johnson’s private space for the time being.
Brunell said he does not know whether or not Johnson will be able to display the flag from his window when he moves into a private residence on campus. He said he has asked David Aronofsky of UM Legal Counsel for clarification on the issue.
Aronofsky said the Confederate Flag is entitled to First Amendment protection at UM and does not fit the profile for hate speech.
Though the University has the right to restrict messages in windows, Aronofsky said it cannot be based on content. If the University allows posters for political candidates in the windows like they did last year during the presidential election, they must allow other signs as well.
“We can’t play favorites,” Aronofsky said.
As he consults with Brunell on this case, Aronofsky said they might have to determine soon whether to allow window displays on campus regardless of content or stop allowing them altogether.
“We have to decide whether it’s going any or none,” he said.
If any students feel offended by his display of the flag, Johnson said he hopes they will come to him first rather than get the administration involved.
“If they got a problem, please come talk to me,” Johnson said.
Though he invited Johnson to talk with him personally about the issue in the last e-mail he wrote to him, Brunell says he has yet to see Johnson come around his office.
“I wish he would come over here and talk to me about it,” Brunell said.