What started out as a patriotic gesture intended to remember the nearly 3,000 lives lost on September 11, 2001, ended up becoming a major verbal scuffle that one North Arizona University student calls "a free speech violation."
The incident, which has likely evolved into something much larger than either side originally anticipated, occurred when students were passing out American flags on their public university campus last Friday. The Arizona Daily Sun shares more about the commemorative activity:
The NAU students were among students at more than 270 colleges and high schools participating in the "9/11: Never Forget Project," which is endorsed by the conservative Young America's Foundation. The University of Arizona also held an event, according to the YAF's website.
In explaining her motivation for holding the initiative, student and Leadership Institute campus representative Stephanee Freer said, "9/11 is very important to me. That's why I do the event. Every year, I do something for 9/11 and it's never been disrupted like this." The "disruption" she mentions unfolded as follows:
During the distribution, four university officials and a police officer approached the group and told the students that they would need to move their activities to a different locality. According to campus staff, the students were hindering foot traffic and they did not have a permit to be operating inside of the school. The students, feeling as though they were within their rights, didn't react to this request very favorably.
While they were initially outside of the school distributing flags, pins and bumper stickers, rain caused them to head inside (a fact they mentioned when staff suggested they head back outdoors). According to school policy, a permit is needed for groups to hold events inside. Apparently permission is easily granted, but university personnel were adamant about the fact that these students hadn't followed the proper procedures.
Adding an interesting twist into the story is the fact that Freer caught the entire incident on video. Throughout the footage (above), university staff can be seen telling the group to go outside, to go and get a permit or to move their activities to the the other end of the building. When a coordinator from the university's Office of Student Life approached the group, Freer can be heard saying:
"This is for 9/11. Do you want to shut down our 9/11 table? Are you unpatriotic?"
Throughout the video, the dialogue between all parties is uncomfortable at best. Freer, a conservative who has been active on campus, believes that she was targeted over her political views. She explains:
"I wasn't waiting for an incident. I wasn't looking for an incident. This was really about 9/11 and it turned into a free speech violation."
College personnel, though, deny that this is a free speech issue. Tom Bauer, a spokesman for the university, says that the students were asked to move because of traffic concerns:
"I don't think that this is a freedom of speech issue. We were not asking them to be quiet. We were not asking them to leave. We were asking them to move to a different location within the same area. This is basically clearing the walkways."
In the end, the students didn't violate any laws and they had no further interaction with the police officer. But they have since been summonsed by the university's administration. While they will not be punished over the incident, officials claim that they'd like to speak further with them.
Some will clearly sympathize with the students here, while others will contend that the students simply weren't following the rules. What do you think. Were the students' First Amendment rights trampled upon?
(h/t AZ Daily Sun)