NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A state appeals court heard arguments Wednesday over whether Vanderbilt University can remove the word "Confederate" from a dormitory the United Daughters of the Confederacy helped build in the 1930s.
The Tennessee chapter of the group claims the university’s effort to drop the first word from Confederate Memorial Hall violates decades-old contracts, but Vanderbilt claims the contracts are no longer valid.
The judges, who did not say when they will issue a ruling, had strong words for both sides.
"You’re arguing social values and making the courts be the tough guy," Judge William Cain said when a Vanderbilt attorney argued the university is completely different than it was in 1934. "The court is faced here with a bilateral contract and not an academic freedom."
Presiding Judge William C. Koch Jr., however, highlighted weaknesses in the heritage group’s case, including that parts of the deal were oral and that some of the contract documents entered as evidence were not signed.
"You’ve put your flags up and marched into battle without ammunition," Koch said.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy, which has 1,300 members in Tennessee and 25,000 nationwide, gave one-third of the cost of the $150,000 building in 1935 as part of a series of contracts with Peabody College. Peabody merged with Vanderbilt in 1979.
In 2002, Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee cited school diversity efforts when he decided to rename the dorm Memorial Hall.
The word "Confederate" has stirred debate at the private liberal arts university since the residence hall was renovated in 1988. Critics call it offensive in the face of an increasingly diverse student body and faculty, but Confederate heritage groups say the name change is an attempt to rewrite history and reject Southern culture.
"This name was given in good faith," said Daughters of the Confederacy member Jennie Jo Hardison, who attended Wednesday’s hearing. "This is not about race at all, and I resent that. It’s about a contract."
A lower court ruled in 2003 that the university had a right to remove the name, but "Confederate" remains etched in stone above the building until the case is resolved.
Vanderbilt attorney William Ozier told the three-judge panel that three contracts from 1913 to 1933 are no longer valid.
"There is no contract that requires the maintenance of the name," Ozier said.
Douglas Jones, the heritage group’s attorney, said the building was meant to be a memorial to Southern soldiers and that a 1927 contract specifies the name to be Confederate Memorial Hall. Architectural sketches of the building include the name.
"There’s no time limits of the contract. It was a memorial," Jones said.
"Is it less of a memorial if it doesn’t have the name?" presiding Judge William C. Koch Jr. asked.
"It would not be the memorial it is without the name," Jones replied.
© 2005 AP Wire