By TESSA CATE
In her office on Monday afternoon, UMW Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr. Juliette Landphair slid a red folder bursting with papers from her desk into her hands, dubbing it her “Free Speech Folder.” North American universities have been met with the challenge of facilitating and policing students’ rights to free speech on campus, and UMW is no exception.
On Oct. 30 and 31, the UMW Young Americans for Freedom gathered on campus to pass out flyers with language similar to that of YAF’s “Funeral for Halloween” campus initiative, supported on the national level. This initiative is one of many YAF encourages its chapters to take part in.
The “Obituary in Memory of Halloween” flyer handed out took on highly controversial topics of political correctness and cultural appropriation, the effects of these ideas on our society’s holidays and the fun-sucking consequences some believe these topics have on the celebration of Halloween.
The flyer reads, “We mourn the loss of Halloween. Too many costumes have been denied due to the fact that their owner doesn’t accurately represent and live out the lifestyle they are dressing up as,” followed by a list of variables leading to Halloween’s death. “Factors that contributed to the death of Halloween include but are not limited to: girls not being able to dress up as their favorite princess, Pocahontas, if they are not native americans or Belle, if they are not French, banned sombreros for those who aren’t hispanic, and banned kimonos for non-Asians.”
The flyer continues, taking on a melodramatic tone, expressing that “the left” has killed Halloween and inviting the student body to a funeral during which they may dispose of any non-PC Halloween costumes they own since they are no longer suitable for Halloween festivities.
Talk of the flyer and UMW YAF’s activities spread throughout campus and students’ Facebook pages, producing boiling comment threads and blurring the line between hate speech and personal expression.
“I understand the importance of freedom of speech, but there comes a point where you need to educate yourself on what you’re talking about,” senior Erynn Sendrick said after posting a picture of the flyer to her personal Facebook page. “When I say educate I mean things like ways to hold effective discourse, confronting topics of controversy, sharing your opinion in a mature way, etc.”
Courtney Owen, UMW YAF Chapter Chair, responded to the aftermath of the chapter’s actions by circling back to the club’s initial reason for holding the event. “After reading numerous Facebook posts and hearing how schools across the country regularly send out emails that warn students who dress up as someone/something that they aren’t already, not to do so, it became apparent to the members of University of Mary Washington Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) that the Left was determined to rob students of their ability to have fun – once again,” said Owen. “YAF hosted the Funeral for Halloween to show our peers that it’s ok to have fun on Halloween.”
The club’s actions, while offensive to some students and backed by others, drive our reexamination of the rights covered by the First Amendment and the actions in violation of it. As this topic spreads like wildfire through college campuses, the UMW administration including Dr. Landphair, is doing its research on how to deal with the issue and combat it if necessary.
“This struck me as an interesting one because clearly some of what they are saying in this flyer is going to be offensive and hurtful to some of our students but under the First Amendment, they have the right to express those sentiments,” Dr. Landphair said.
Dr. Landphair then recalled a UMW policy titled “Expressive Activity By Members of University Community” that addresses the rights and reach of student expression on campus. The policy is currently under review and states, “Free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the vibrancy and vitality of a campus community. Diverse perspectives are honored and valued on campus and it is essential that community members have the opportunity to engage peaceful and orderly protests and demonstrations.”
“As a public university, we’re essentially a governmental entity so the First Amendment applies on our campus,” Dr. Landphair noted. “For student groups, as long as they put in their request with the Student Activities and Engagement office, they can speak.”
Though UMW YAF’s “expressive activity” was within their rights as students and members of the UMW community, it struck a chord with students and raises the question – what qualifies as hate speech and what control does a university administration have over it?
“Some people would view this as hate speech. They would feel like this is hateful or hurtful or offensive, but it’s not individually threatening,” Dr. Landphair explained. “But is that hate speech? Depends on how you interpret it.”