Texas Gov. Greg Abbott appealed Wednesday to Southern Methodist University to reverse a new policy decision that is forcing a change in location on campus for the annual 9/11 memorial display of American flags by a student group.
The tribute of nearly 3,000 small flags “that honor the lives lost on that terrible day” are traditionally displayed on SMU’s Dallas Hall lawn, according to the campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, which sponsors the memorial.
Last month, SMU decided to prohibit displays on that prime site, saying the university “respects the right of all members of the community to avoid messages that are triggering, harmful, or harassing.”
Were students on the Dallas campus really that fragile years after the 2001 terrorist attacks? Many students were skeptical of that reasoning and winced at the headlines that followed, such as: “9/11 memorial flags may be too much for some students, must be moved, SMU says.”
Some suspected something else was spurring the policy change. The university’s newspaper noted that displays on the Dallas Hall lawn “met with little resistance” until an antiabortion group, Mustangs for Life, began putting up a memorial of crosses, each representing “a life lost to abortion.”
Although the university offered an alternative campus location for the 9/11 memorial, the new policy language inspired a battle over freedom of expression.
In an open letter to SMU President R. Gerald Turner posted to Facebook on Tuesday, leaders of several student groups across the ideological spectrum, including the Young Americans for Freedom, Mustangs for Life, College Democrats, College Republicans and the Feminist Equality Movement, joined in decrying the new policy.
“A flag memorial to honor those who lost their lives in the events of 9/11, or displays promoting the education and discussion of the pro-life, pro-choice movements among SMU students must not be viewed as attacks on others,” said the letter, which the Young Americans for Freedom posted. “SMU is deviating from its call as a center of higher learning.”
In a statement on its website Wednesday, SMU apologized for the language about displays being “triggering or harmful” in its new policy, calling it “inappropriate wording” that had not been properly vetted. That language has since been dropped. “SMU remains absolutely committed to the freedom of expression of all campus community members,” the statement said.
But the university remained firm that the Dallas Hall lawn remained off-limits for the memorial “because it is used by campus community members as a place for studying, outdoor classes and a variety of University events throughout the year.”
The approved alternative site — Morrison-McGinnis Park, nicknamed MoMac Park — “is an open and centrally located space along Bishop Boulevard, the most prominent drive on campus,” the statement said.
In a letter sent to SMU’s president Wednesday, the governor asked that the decision be overturned and the original site for the memorial be reinstated in its “traditional place of honor on the lawn of Dallas Hall.”
“I ask that the 9/11 display not be relegated to a far corner of campus,” the governor wrote. “It should be celebrated in its heart.”
While acknowledging the governor’s letter, SMU’s president remained firm about the location change and took issue with Abbott’s characterization of the new location. “The new location is, in fact, in the heart of campus, not ‘a far corner of campus,’ ” Turner said.
For emphasis, Turner included a campus map showing the new site. “SMU considers this memorial event to be a significant contribution to our campus community’s remembrances of September 11,” he wrote.
More from Morning Mix