Southern Methodist University officials revised a policy Tuesday that aimed to protect students from “harmful or triggering” messages after a dispute erupted over an annual 9/11 installation that students had planned for the heart of campus.
Nearly 3,000 flags have been placed on Southern Methodist University’s Dallas Hall Lawn every year since 2010, but the group responsible for the display, Young Americans for Freedom, was recently told it must be moved.
University officials told Grant Wolf, who leads SMU’s Young Americans chapter, that the display can be placed only on Morrison-McGinnis Park, a less-prominent campus location informally known as MoMac Park.
In a policy posted in July, SMU stated: “The University respects the right of all members of the SMU community to express their opinions. The University also respects the right of all members of the community to avoid messages that are triggering, harmful or harassing. It is the policy of the University to protect the exercise of these rights.”
The university revised the policy Tuesday.
“SMU respects the rights of all campus community members to express their opinions, as well as their right to be free from coercion and harassment. The policy has been further updated to better reflect this balance and to remove the poor wording regarding triggering or harmful messages,” it said in a written statement.
The university had approved the 9/11 memorial but said, it, like all approved displays, will be at MoMac Park.
Wolf is stumped by the school’s decision to limit lawn displays to a green space farther from the main academic buildings. The Young Americans and other student groups called the new policy an attack on free speech.
“I don’t believe it’s the responsibility of the university to shield individuals from certain ideas that they might be offended by,” he said.
Kent Best, executive director of communications for the university, said in a written statement that the policy was revised because Dallas Hall lawn “is used frequently for outdoor class space, studying between classes and a variety of university events.”
SMU said MoMac Park is a larger site “near the center of campus along Bishop Boulevard, the most prominent drive on campus.”
Wolf, along with leaders from the College Democrats, College Republicans, Feminist Equality Movement, Mustangs for Life and Turning Point USA, sent a letter to the president of the university, R. Gerald Turner, expressing frustration and disappointment with the policy.
“People absolutely have to have a right to their own opinions, but this does not come with a right to be shielded from opposing ideas, especially in an environment dedicated to the learning, sharing and developing of new ideas,” they wrote.
Heather Hall, president of the SMU Turning Point USA chapter, said moving the 9/11 memorial to MoMac park is an attempt to pacify students, not a compromise.
“Push it off into a little park in the corner, it’s almost the same as not having it,” she said.
Hall said the university may have made the decision because of controversy in recent years over an annual anti-abortion display on Dallas Hall Lawn.
Controversy and discussion are and should always be a part of the climate at SMU, she said.
“That’s not free speech. That’s not American. That’s definitely not what SMU stands for,” Hall said.
Others fear the move could hamper dialogue at the university.
“How can one perceive what is true if one is shielded from perceiving certain ideas?” Wolf asked.
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