After Nicole Parsons, a University of Massachusetts at Amherst student, hung a sign to her residence hall window proclaiming “Fuck Nazis,” she got an email from an administrator.
It wasn’t “inclusive,” he wrote, and asked that Parsons remove it.
The response by the institution officials -- who did admit Parsons had every right to keep the sign -- has drawn the ire of students and alumni who perceived the institution was attempting to include white supremacy under the banner of “inclusion.”
Parsons, who did not respond to requests for comment, told news media she hung the sign in her window that read “Fuck Nazis, you are not welcome here” in December following a swastika being drawn on a “Happy Hanukkah” poster a resident assistant had posted.
“I figured the person responsible would likely walk by my dorm and see it,” Parsons said in an interview with The Boston Globe. “UMass administration has had abysmal response at best to the rising number of hate crimes on campus, so I thought someone should be publicly condemning these actions.”
Days after she put the sign in the window, Parsons received the email from Eddie Papazoni, a university residence director.
In the email, which has circulated on social media, Papazoni noted that the sign was allowed under university rules.
But “some in the community” said that the sign should be taken down, Papazoni wrote, as “it had created mixed emotions … on how to proceed, issues of inclusion and the ability to be active members of their community.”
Most public institutions cannot limit such displays of free speech, though some have policies against all window hangings out of safety concerns or other reasons. While universities are routinely embroiled in controversies regarding free expression, this is the first incident in recent memory where the institution seemingly was concerned about inclusiveness for Nazis.
“While Residence Education cannot force you or your roommate to take the sign down, I am asking that you or your roommate take the sign down so that all students can be a part of an inclusive residential experience, as well as having a respectful environment to be a part of on our campus,” Papazoni wrote.
Backlash was immediate. The public deemed the university Nazi sympathizers. One woman who identified herself as an alumna wrote on Facebook, “Tolerance for hate crimes and intolerance for resisting fascism? This is UMass Amherst now? Ashamed.”
The university apologized for what it called a “poorly worded email” that did not reflect campus values.
“UMass Amherst emphatically rejects Nazis, and any other hate group, a view expressed in the students’ sign,” the university said in a statement. “However, we are sensitive to the use of profanity, which some could find inappropriate. The university respects the students’ right to display the sign and it may remain up.”
The university's attempt to backtrack was poor, as officials seemingly tried to spin the conversation and focus on profanity and not the larger issue of Nazis and inclusion, said Michael Gordon, a crisis communications expert and principal at Group Gordon, a communications firm based in New York.
Parsons told the Globe she was already moving off campus before the controversy but was particularly glad she was, given the university’s initial response.
Administrators, particularly midlevel ones in student affairs, are consistently overreaching in an attempt to coddle students or even raise their personal profile, said Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, who has studied the political leanings and motivations of student affairs professionals. This appeared to be the case with Papazoni's email, Abrams said.
Abrams noted how Papazoni used vague language in the email, being so "noncommittal" that he wasn't even taking a stand. He said that the students should have been allowed to debate the sign instead of Parsons having her free speech rights squashed.
"Students need a place to grow," Abrams said. "Students are allowed to have disagreements. I have huge fights with people, but I deal with them or talk to them, and then you make up, or you don’t. But that’s really an important thing -- trying to teach people discourse. This inhibits that and sends a really weird [message]. These administrators' fear of everything, that has to stop."
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a civil liberties watchdog in academe, confirmed that the First Amendment protects students’ rights to use vulgarity to describe Nazis, even if it makes others uncomfortable.
“The university was free to criticize the sign, but correct to note that they couldn't compel the student to take it down,” Adam Steinbaugh, director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, said in a statement. “Government actors -- like a public university -- don't get to pick which words people use to express their feelings. If other students don't like a sign that says 'Fuck Nazis,' avert your eyes.”
UMass Amherst has promoted a campaign called Hate Has No Home at UMass, in which it has developed a diversity "tool kit" students and others can download. It also publicizes incidents of hate speech on campus -- there have been 19 since September.