Free speech debate gains momentum after flag disappears

Story by Mike Gerrity
September 16, 2009
Montana Kaimin

He came back to his room Friday afternoon expecting to see his Confederate flag hanging in the balcony window right where he had left it. It wasn’t.

Up until that point, the debate surrounding his decision to display the infamous banner seemed to lie entirely in Kyle Johnson’s hands, until somebody upped the ante when they allegedly broke into his room and stole it.

UM Office of Public Safety director Jim Lemcke said the flag was reportedly taken from the study lounge serving as interim housing in Knowles Hall while both of the students living there were gone. The flag had been left hanging on the inside of the glass-plated balcony door, leaving it visible outside.

Johnson, 20, said he remembered locking the door on his way out that day, but that his roommate usually leaves the door unlocked.

Johnson’s story has been gaining momentum in state and national media since Friday. Johnson said he had fielded phone calls from at least 40 people on Tuesday alone, 20 of which were from the media.

Now, as Johnson prepares to move into his new residence in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, the issue continues to draw fire.

Shaunte Nance-Johnson, 22, a point guard for the Lady Griz basketball team and a member of UM’s Black Student Union, said to her the flag is an unmistakable symbol of racism and hostility towards African Americans.

“I don’t see anything positive in it,” Nance-Johnson said.

Seeing the flag draped over the fourth floor balcony of Knowles Hall two weeks ago, she said, brought back memories of her time as a student at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. Being a black girl there in 2005 was a lonely experience.

“All. White. College,” she said. “Seriously, six black people.”

She had friends there, but nonetheless got “that look” everywhere she went. Her friends would advise her not to even walk inside a McDonald’s by herself.

“It felt foggy and just tense, like you had to watch your back or something,” she said.

She’s been called a nigger before. She remembers one guy shouting that word to her in a passing truck. She also remembers the Confederate flag hanging off of it as it passed. The same flag she saw on this campus.

“I just looked at it as pure ignorance,” she said. “The history behind it is so negative I don’t even know how it stands up until this day.”

Johnson maintains that to him, that flag represents his heritage as a symbol of freedom and liberty.

“It’s not a symbol of racism, it’s a symbol of state’s rights,” Johnson said.

Nance-Johnson challenged his willingness to overlook the flag’s infamous association with slavery.

“Would he feel comfortable hanging it up in a room full of African Americans?” she said.

Johnson asserted he has been in that very situation in Virginia before.

“I’ve been with African Americans who’ve flown the flag themselves,” Johnson said.

With so few African American students on UM’s campus, Nance-Johnson said Johnson’s desire to fly the stars and bars should not take precedence over making UM feel like a safe place for black students.

“At least be respectful to all cultures,” she said.

Johnson said he has already ordered a new flag to replace the stolen one and that it should be in the mail Friday by the time he moves into his new fraternity residence.

Cody Knowlton, a member of the SAE fraternity, said there would be nothing to stop Johnson from hanging the flag from his window when he moves in.

“Something like that is history to him,” Knowlton said.

Knowlton acknowledged that he could not speak for those who would most likely be offended by having the flag displayed from the frat house, specifically black students.

“We have had black frat members before,” he said. “I don’t know how they would feel about that.”

The controversy surrounding Johnson’s decision to hang the Confederate flag in his window has sparked a conversation between Residence Life Director Ron Brunell and David Aronofsky of UM’s Legal Counsel about University policies regarding students adorning their windows.

But this incident has also drawn comment from a student engulfed in a similar controversy almost eight years ago.

In October 2001, as bombs were falling over Afghanistan in retaliation for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, a student named John Bacino was getting in trouble with RAs for displaying signs on the door of his dorm room, a floor below where Johnson lives in Knowles now.

“Go on, incite war because you have financial interest in murdering innocent people,” read one of the signs. “When you own a world filled with corpses, who will buy your guns?” stated another.

Bacino said he put them up in response to pro-war messages he saw posted just down the hall from him that he found to be irrational and hateful.

“They were essentially like, ‘Kill all Arabs,’” Bacino said.

His situation played out remarkably in sync with this most recent controversy. According to a Kaimin story written that fall, an RA asked Bacino to take the signs down. He refused. He then met with Brunell, who assured him that it was his right to display the signs although he advised him to take them down. Bacino respectfully thanked him for his opinion and continued to hang the signs anyway.

Bacino remembers speaking to Aronofsky before going in to meet Brunell, especially the part where he was told that UM could not ban messages on dorm room doors based on content.

Aronofsky remembers it, too. He says he remembers indicating to Residence Life that UM could either ban all messages on doors facing out or permit all messages that qualified as protected speech.

“This is consistent with what I have said about the flag,” Aronofsky wrote in an e-mail to the Kaimin. “You can restrict where any messages at all are posted except in free speech zones and inside UM-owned residences (rooms, apartments and houses); or you permit all messages protected by the First Amendment to be posted on a viewpoint-neutral basis.”

Aronofsky maintains his belief that the flag is protected speech. Whether or not UM will act on making a solid policy regarding public messages is still not clear.

If it is still protected under the constitution, Nance-Johnson said that pretty much clears up the legal battle. But that doesn’t change what it means to her and how it was used against her.

“It’s pretty hurtful more than anything,” she said. “Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right.”

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