Following protests that the university was trampling upon students’ First Amendment rights, the University of Texas at Austin suspended a policy Thursday prohibiting the placement of signs in residence hall windows – including campaign signs.
“We’re very excited,” said Ryan Ellis, a junior at Texas and president of the College Republicans. “We’re going to get those McCain-Palin signs out there.”
“I’m sure our law-abiding group members out there will be happy to know that their free speech is protected here on campus once again.”
Ellis objected to the rule even though the case that attracted attention to it involved an Obama supporter.
The suspension of the policy – as well as "any sanctions related to its enforcement” – came one day after two roommates (and cousins) who refused to take down Obama signs, Blake and Connor Kincaid, were restricted from registering for spring classes, as the Dallas Morning News reported. Jeffery L. Graves, the university's associate vice president for legal affairs, declined to comment on any individual disciplinary cases. But he said of placing signs in dorm windows, “It is now allowed behavior. Therefore, we’re certainly not going to discipline anybody based on the old rule, what is as of now [Thursday afternoon] the old rule.”
The “old rule,” included in the residence hall handbook under the heading “windows and screens,” stipulates that, “Windows and screens may not be used to display advertisements, posters, flags, clothing or any externally visible display.” Students complained that the policy hadn’t been consistently enforced up until this election season (when it does seem to have been enforced consistently across party lines), although Graves said before violations typically involved students placing Longhorn flags and such in their windows. When told to remove them, they did so without major complaints.
“It was never an issue. Only because this is a hot political season, did it get pushed back on. And as I say, once that became apparent to the university administration and particularly to our president, he said, ‘We need to look at this again,'" Graves said.
In a university-wide e-mail sent at 1:31 p.m. Thursday, Texas’ president, William Powers, Jr., said he would immediately suspend the prohibition on signs in dorm room windows, replacing it “with an interim regulation that expressly allows the display of signs and posters in students’ residence hall room windows.” He added that the university will convene a committee to recommend any permanent policy changes. "The interim rule allowing signage in individual students' residence hall room windows will remain in place until the committee issues its report and I act upon their recommendations," the e-mail said.
“We are grateful they listened to us and took this under advisement, but we are a little skeptical about the word ‘temporary,’” said Andy Jones, a junior and public relations director for Texas’ University Democrats. Still, he said, “Ultimately what matters to us is we’re expressing our freedom of speech. And, on a more personal note, I’d like to know that Connor and Blake can go to class next semester.”
Of the policy the roommates were punished under Wednesday, Jones said, “This is an egregious infringement of their First Amendment rights, in all of our opinions.”
Graves cited the two primary reasons behind the former sign ban, including aesthetics – “we just don’t want people to have stuff plastered everywhere” – and, politically speaking, concerns about "the appearance of endorsement” on the university’s part. “We’re a state agency. We’re prohibited by law from taking a political position.”
“I believe that our rules are constitutional. The rule was not changed because we don’t believe it was constitutional,” he continued.
Norb Dunkel, president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International, said policies prohibiting the placement of items in a dormitory window are extremely common across the United States for fire safety reasons. “Generally it’s been a fire marshal-imposed policy that residence halls should not have windows with things in them that can impede access or egress,” said Dunkel, who’s also assistant vice president and director of housing and residence education at the University of Florida.
Fire safety regulations vary from state to state, Dunkel said, adding that the committee to be convened at UT Austin to consider a long-term signage policy needs to research and consider that issue. He added that, as an alternative, some colleges, including Florida, have moved to installing temporary kiosks outside residence halls during election seasons, so students can post signs in the communal front yard, so to speak.
And for students really wanting to make a statement in their window dressings, “there’s always a way," he said.
“We do see students who have taken signs and moved them three feet back from the window and put a light in front of them -- so you can still see them from the outside.”