by Grant Wolf
In early July, the Young Americans for Freedom chapter at SMU submitted a use of grounds request for Dallas Hall Lawn, a central location on campus where we have, for 2 years previous, hosted the 9/11 Never Forget Project. The Project consists of placing a memorial of 2,977 American flags in a visually stunning display that represents each of the 2,977 Americans murdered by Al Qaeda terrorists in September 2001.
On July 24, SMU YAF received a notification in response to our request that the University had unilaterally changed its policy on what it calls “Memorial Lawn displays.” The email informed YAF that displays are now forbidden on Dallas Hall Lawn, and would instead be relegated to MoMac Park, a location unquestionably less visible and further removed from students’ everyday activities. Dallas Hall Lawn is a busy thriving hub of activity, which thousands of students, alumni, visitors, and community members walk by daily. It is surrounded by all the major buildings of humanities and political studies, and functions as the central forum of SMU’s campus. MoMac Park does not.
Research revealed that this policy was added to the SMU code of regulations this month, July 2017. Most poignantly, the new policy reads, “While the University respects the rights of students to free speech, the University respects the right of members of the community to avoid messages that are triggering, harmful, or harassing.” This statement and the rationale it offers clearly reveals the University’s fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment and the principle of free speech.
Freedom of speech does not mean insulating individuals from opposing or unpopular ideas. It means that every individual and organization has the right to present their ideas and arguments for consideration, discussion, and contention in the forum of public debate. The exposure to and interaction with opposing ideas and worldviews is foundational to cultivating students’ ability to critically evaluate arguments and ascertain truth. Ironically, SMU’s Latin motto, a Biblical quotation, reads “Veritas Liberavit Vos – The Truth Shall Set You Free.” At the same time, the University is actively restricting the pursuit of truth by preventing students from publicly demonstrating and presenting their ideas to their peers in an accessible, visible forum.
SMU does both its students and our nation an unacceptable disservice in preventing the free demonstration and discussion of differing ideas on its central campus lawn.
Until this policy was instituted, the lawn did indeed function as a central hub for the exchange of ideas. SMU YAF has placed our 9/11 display here for 2 years, and in 2015, the official University Facebook page posted a picture of our display with the Young Americans for Freedom banner in front, proudly showing their support for our action to their 60,000 followers. The SMU pro-life organization, Mustangs for Life, has for multiple years hosted an abortion memorial display with thousands of crosses, aiming to spur dialogue and public discussion among the student body regarding the issue of abortion. Last year, their display coincided with a jointly hosted pro-life lecture with SMU YAF featuring Carly Fiorina.
But this new action by the University represents a significant change in the status quo regarding freedom of speech on campus, and the rationale their policy provides is not acceptable. In such a time where universities across the United States such as UC Berkeley, Cal State Los Angeles, De Paul, UW Madison, Evergreen, Middlebury, and others continue to cave to the demands and violent threats of free speech opponents, SMU has an opportunity to make a bold stand for the First Amendment and embrace vigorous debate, not safe spaces, as the modus operandum on campus – to restore honest intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of truth as the foundation of academia.
The Young Americans for Freedom at SMU have strongly urged our administration to overturn this new policy, and join us in taking a bold and authentic stand for freedom. We here repeat that charge.