Officials at the University of Maryland's College Park campus have asked students to remove banners and American flags that were hung on some dormitories since the start of the Persian Gulf War, prompting a debate over free speech at the school.

Although the requests were made late last week out of a fear that students could be hurt while hanging signs from their dorm room windows, campus officials recently began discouraging the displays because they are worried that expressions about the war could lead to conflicts, said Jan Davidson, assistant to the director of resident life for the campus.

Officials are concerned that if they do not crack down on war-related banners and flags now, while public opinion about the military action is fairly unified, they ultimately may find themselves in the unpleasant position of having to mediate disputes about which displays are acceptable and which are offensive, Davidson said.

"We don't want to get drawn into a situation where we are making decisions based on content," Davidson said. "So we are appealing to individuals who wish to hang a banner to recognize that this is a very diverse community, and what may be innocent to one person may be insulting to another."

So far, student reaction to the policy has been mostly negative.

Vicki Gruber, president of the Student Government Association, said student representatives received about 30 telephone calls and 20 visits yesterday from students angry about the administrative action.

As a sign of protest, student government leaders hung an American flag from their office window yesterday afternoon.

"This has never come up before. We had Merry Christmas signs and lights and nobody said that might offend your Jewish neighbor," Gruber said. "The university should encourage people to express their opinions . . . . It might increase the amount of work for administrators, but making a rule now would be a violation of our First Amendment rights."

Davidson said about 10 flags and banners have appeared on campus dorms since the start of the war. With the exception of one or two flags that were hung upside down, the signs supported the war or the U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, he said. As of yesterday, three signs and flags remained hanging because students refused to take them down, he said.

Davidson said campus officials have not ordered the removal of the signs because the university does not have a written policy prohibiting the hanging of banners from campus buildings. Signs expressing support for the Maryland Terrapins frequently are posted before athletic contests or Homecoming Day, he said.

Campus officials are considering developing a policy because of the recent controversy and have told students that one possible outcome is a ban on banners and flags hanging on the outside of campus buildings, he said.

"We are responding to the times," Davidson said.