Confederate-flag flap prompts U. of Mont. to review policy

By The Associated Press
09.16.09

MISSOULA, Mont. — A lawyer for the University of Montana is reviewing the school’s "no banner" policy after a student flew a Confederate flag from the balcony of his dorm room.

University officials said hanging the flag violated the school banner policy.

Kyle Johnson, 20, who grew up in Winchester, Va., countered that forcing him to remove the flag violated his constitutional right to freedom of speech.

"To some people it may be viewed as a symbol of racism and bigotry, but to me it’s a symbol of my heritage and of the nation’s history," Johnson said.

Johnson did some research and discovered the school policy does not address decorations or posters hanging inside that are visible outside.

So he re-hung the flag in his room, which at the time was also used as a study hall lounge.

The resident assistant asked him to remove the flag. Johnson again asserted his First Amendment rights and took the issue to the director of residence life, who consulted the university’s legal counsel.

Attorney David Aronofsky said Johnson was correct that the flag is protected by the First Amendment.

"But if this was a school with a lot of racial strife, it wouldn’t be," Aronofsky said. "If it’s a school with documented cases of racial violence, then it’s OK to ban it, because it constitutes ‘fighting words.’ It depends on the history of the school."

As the debate raged, someone broke into the lounge and stole Johnson’s flag.

Aronofsky says he’s contemplating an "all-or-nothing" approach to the campus banner policy.

"Either any First Amendment-protected speech goes or nothing goes," he said. "Go Griz" banners or others signs promoting the university would be an exception, but any other departures would be unfair, he said.

"I don’t want to get into the business of splitting hairs, because the issue of the First Amendment is supposed to be applied broadly, and not narrowly," Aronofsky said.

Other messages already displayed on campus include Tibetan prayer flags hanging inside one dorm window, an "Obama Pro Choice" poster in another, and a Budweiser sign in a third.

Ron Brunell, director of residence life, said no one complained about political signs in dorm rooms during the last presidential campaign. And that’s what sets the Confederate flag case apart.

"This is a community and we try to guarantee the rights of all our students," Brunell said. "But when you live in a community, you have to be aware that some of your actions could cause others to be uncomfortable."

Johnson, who has since moved to a fraternity house off campus, says he’ll pursue the issue as a matter of principle. And he says he’ll put up a Confederate flag again, as soon as he gets a new one.

On The Web:   www.firstamendmentcenter.org/news.aspx?id=22070