LETTER: Christian college tells conservative students they can't put up crosses
The Dean of Students explained that physical displays take away an individual's "right" to "choose to engage or not engage" with certain topics.
Students at Rocky Mountain College have been barred from erecting physical displays advocating for the pro-life cause, because it is considered a "divisive" topic.
Free speech advocates are putting pressure on a Montana Christian college to cease the use of a policy that the organization claims is counter to the college’s own promise to its students of free expression.
Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana employs a policy against "divisive" displays. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to the college last week, calling out the institution's hypocrisy in that it promises its students free expression, but bans certain displays around “controversial” topics that it says students have a right to “choose” whether or not to “engage” with.
In recent years, Young Americans for Freedom at RMC erected multiple 9/11 memorials involving small American flags lining campus walkways. These displays were approved by the university, but in August, when the group requested permission for a similar display with crosses instead of flags to memorialize victims of abortion, Dean of Students Brad Nason told YAF-RMC secretary and treasurer Emily Kokot that such a display was not allowed because it dealt with a "divisive" topic, according to the letter.
"I’m sorry Emily but that is not a program that would be allowed at RMC," Nason wrote, according to FIRE. "The College has no objection to discourse and dialog about/around the pro-life movement, but we draw the line at public displays of divisive topics. A physical 'memorial for abortion victims' falls into that category. . . . For the record, the President’s Cabinet recently rejected a similar request for an on-campus marketing campaign, that would have included what most would interpret as liberal messaging, around the topics of immigrant rights, climate change, science, and racism. We considered that program unnecessarily and inappropriately confrontational. "
Kokot challenged Nason, arguing that the university was not upholding its purported commitment to free speech. Nason then told Kokot that public displays eliminate "every student's ability to choose to engage or not to engage with that issue."
But, as FIRE points out “If students are encouraged to ‘choose’ to engage in the topic, but cannot raise the topic in a posting to announce their choice, then precisely how, where, and when do the ‘open and thoughtful discussions’ take place?”
"The pro-life/pro-choice debate is incredibly divisive and in the College [sic] view, a public display is confrontational. We believe the College community has a right to choose to either engage in a program or not..." Nason wrote, according to FIRE, later reminding Kokot of the school's "responsibility to create a safe, comfortable and respectful environment where students live and learn."
In late September, the group had another run-in with the rule against "divisive" displays, in a situation that again stifled the kind of productive conversations Nason claims to hope to facilitate. Kokot says she had been told by administration that posters reading "Unborn Lives Matter" would be acceptable to post so long as they included YAF meeting times, implying that the meeting would include dialogue on the topic. Even with meeting times included, Nason rejected the posters.
FIRE's letter called on the school to live up to its own promises of freedom of expression for its students, and allow YAF-RMC "and other student groups" to "engage in on-campus displays and postings on matters of controversy."
"Dialogue and understanding are not the opposite of controversial campus speech; in many cases, they are the result," FIRE said.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @celinedryan