Next Time, Leave the Posters on the Wall

While condemning racism and discrimination ought to be the steadfast position of any university administration, the phrasing used by University administrators suggests administrative approval for removal of posters and other signs that students dislike or find offensive. Even such tacit approval of censorship is contrary to the very idea of freedom of speech.

Angell Hall on the Campus of the University of Michigan
Angell Hall on the Campus of the University of Michigan

On Monday, September 26, free speech lost on the campus of the University of Michigan. The President of the University, Mark Schlissel, along with the Dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, Andrew Martin, condoned the removal of posters that students found offensive. This is a position inconsistent with both the First Amendment and the robust commitment to free speech necessary for a public institution of higher education.

In a statement, President Schlissel explained that “a member of our University of Michigan community found and removed several fliers in Haven and Mason Halls, in the heart of central campus, that espouse a racist point of view.” Schlissel added his support for the removal of these posters, noting that messages of racial, ethnic or religious discrimination have no place at the University of Michigan.”

Dean Martin also issued a statement condemning the posters explaining that “Their presence marred our physical spaces—in Haven and Mason Halls—where we hold our classes and where our faculty and staff work, and are an assault on everything we believe in as a liberal arts college and as a diverse community.”

While condemning racism and discrimination ought to be the steadfast position of any university administration, the phrasing used by University administrators suggests administrative approval for removal of posters and other signs that students dislike or find offensive. Even such tacit approval of censorship is contrary to the very idea of freedom of speech.  

Even such tacit approval of censorship is contrary to the very idea of freedom of speech.

In allowing for the removal of publicly posted documents based on content alone, the University is taking a stance on what students are allowed to both say and hear on campus. This paternalistic censorship, while well-intentioned, does a disservice to the entire campus community.

Even the most deplorable speech, including the Alt-Right posters found on campus, are protected by the same laws that protect the organizers of protests and the posting of counter speech. Allowing censorship of what is today deemed abhorrent opens up the path for censorship tomorrow of ideas that are today held dear.

As Justice Brandeis reminds us: “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” While this quote was originally applied to the lack of transparency in financial institutions, it is also applicable to institutional racism. If the campus community truly wants to address issues of racism and discrimination, the hateful speech posted on campus must be exposed in the light of day and talked about rather than removed or ripped off of walls and left to fester in the shadows.

Counter speech is far more powerful than censorship.

Of course, many students – even those who may condemn this article – have taken this principle to heart and organized their own speech to counter the views espoused by the posters. Already, student leaders have organized rallies in the common spaces of Angell Hall and on the Diag in addition to a steady stream of commentary on social media combating the racism in the posters. These are laudable actions. Counter speech is far more powerful than censorship.

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About Erin Dunne

Erin Dunne is a senior studying History, French and International Studies. In her free time she is a drug policy reform advocate and a free speech enthusiast. You can reach her by email at eedunne@umich.edu