Free Speech Controversy At SMU Makes National Headlines

DALLAS (CBS11) – A firestorm of controversy over free speech at SMU is making national headlines this week.

Drew Wicker, President of SMU’s College Republicans is among student groups sounding the alarm.  “This is about free speech.”

The uproar began when SMU told the Young America’s Foundation that its yearly display of flags honoring September 11th victims will no longer allowed to be set up at the Dallas Hall lawn as in past years.

Wicker says, “It serves as the emblem and symbol of SMU.  The fact that they decided to move it away from the center and heart of SMU is just a shock to me.”

The controversy has ignited emotions and united students of different ideologies. 

Julia Cantu, President of the SMU Feminist Equality Movement says, “Many organizations have done displays before on Dallas Hall lawn in the past few years, and there’s never been a significant uproar or petition to stop that, so it’s really a surprising policy change.”

The university now requires all student displays to be held at MoMac Park, along the main road, Bishop Blvd.

 It’s a new park on the site of the old Natatorium that the university knocked down three years ago.

Wicker says, “I can tell you that both of us had to ask other students where it was on campus.”

In notifying YAF about the university’s new lawn display location, the university said that it respects “the right of all members of the community to avoid messages that are triggering, harmful or harassing.”

SMU spokesman Kent Best says that wording has now been changed, and that it wasn’t formally approved by the university.

Best says the wording would never have applied to the flag display, but he says it could explain why another request for a display might be rejected.

Governor Greg Abbott wrote a letter to SMU President Gerald Turner earlier in the week saying, “As governor, and on behalf of the people of this great state, I ask that you reconsider the decision to deny the request to display the student-led 9/11 memorial of nearly 3,000 American flags in its appropriate and traditional place of honor on the lawn of Dallas Hall of Southern Methodist University.  This display is not political.  It is not partisan.  It is not controversial.”

Turner sought to reassure the Governor in a letter saying that MoMac Park is in the heart of the campus and fits the description better than Dallas Hall since it’s “one of our northern-most buildings.”   Turner went onto say that SMU “is unwavering in our commitment to provide opportunities for civil and civic participation and free expression.”  

Senator Ted Cruz criticized the change on Twitter.

“This is absurd. Political correctness at its worst,” said Cruz while retweeting an article about the situation.

The students aren’t backing down, and seven groups wrote a letter to Governor Abbott and copied President Turner.  “…This is the beginning of the battle for the heart and soul of Texas’ universities, and we will not stand idly by and watch the university we love deviate from its mission as a center for hire learning…”

Wicker says he had received anonymous texts and emails from people who complained about the flag displays.

Kent Best of SMU says there were no complaints that led to the change in policy.

He says administrators saw a need to move the displays to a space that’s not so frequently needed for other events and activities.

But Wicker and Cantu question that because the area where they are allowed to show their displays is only a small part of the large lawn in front of Dallas Hall.  

They say their displays have never gotten in the way of events or activities that they’re aware of.

Now, alumni are speaking out. 

Wayne Richard, who graduated the Cox School of Business says, “I love SMU.  Of course we’re angry this is taking place.”

Richard says he and other alumni are furious and calling the university.  “The attack on the first amendment seems to be a cancer on the institutions of higher learning and I’m upset to think that cancer is starting to inflict itself at SMU.”

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