Alabama and the American Flag
March 1, 2005
Reader Fletcher Moore writes in regard to my post from Monday in which I stated that the University of Alabama was, “after all, the school that banned the American flag from dorm windows.” Mr. Moore responds:
If you follow your own link, you’ll note that the policy applied to “all window displays in student dormitories,” and was created in response to the display of a Confederate flag. Students hung American flags in response to the policy, as a means of protest.
To be sure, the policy is crude and contrary to a signal American freedom, but it was not as you represented it. You do your readers and your cause a disservice with this kind of sloppiness.
While I do think I would have done better if I had written that Alabama “banned all dorm window displays, including the American flag,” it is important to remember that it was the ban’s effect on the American flag—not just any window display—that inspired the Alabama students to defy the administration’s ban attempt. The fact that the rule would have banned all displays, not just the American flag, makes what UA did not better but worse. While banning the expression of one viewpoint is very wrong (and, on public campuses, unconstitutional), banning all viewpoints is even more troubling. This is because while banning student expression of one viewpoint reflects a political bias, banning the expression of all viewpoints reflects a serious hostility towards the very notion that students have a right to participate in the marketplace of ideas. Such a culture of silence and repression of all students would hardly be an improvement over the kind of biased political culture that, frankly, is widespread on American campuses today.
Todd Zywicki over at the Volokh Conspiracy had similar thoughts on Alabama and faced criticism on Kevin Drum’s Washington Monthly for not pointing out that this was a blanket ban on all window displays. Adding a new dimension to the misunderstanding of the issue, many of Drum’s commenters (though not Drum himself) seem to have missed the point of my post, which was to say that UA has a history of hostility towards free expression, not to attack Alabama for liberal bias (although it clearly does have a liberal bias, at least among administrators and faculty).
From reading Drum’s commenters, it seems pretty clear to me that the issue discussed in my post attracted attention because nowadays people tend to see the display of the American flag as some sort of conservative political statement, and therefore see FIRE’s attack on UA for banning the American flag as an attack on those who are not conservative. It’s not, and my oversight in not mentioning Alabama’s blanket ban on expression was not motivated by an effort to push a political point. FIRE is a nonpartisan organization, and as a FIRE employee, that’s not my job. We take our moral obligation to defend people of all political stripes very seriously.
FIRE used the American flag as an example in Alabama’s case because it is perhaps the most widely displayed symbol in the country. Display of the flag is hardly radical (look around on the Fourth of July or Labor Day) and, to be honest, is controversial in only a very small number of places (universities primary among them). When a policy that bans expression becomes so broad that it bans even our national flag, people begin to understand that it is not merely neo-Confederates, Ku Klux Klan members, the Black Panthers, or the Campus Communists that experience oppression on campus. The message FIRE hopes to send by giving such examples is this: the power to censor, once established, can affect anyone. From Professor Deming at OU to Professor Ito at Forsyth Tech, when liberty is ignored, people of every political stripe feel the sting of oppression. FIRE’s fight for freedom would be a lot easier if people could put their politics aside and agree that the First Amendment is for everyone.