Support Local Journalism


Subscribe


A Montana State University student is challenging a new university policy that bans outward facing window displays or front door displays in resident halls, saying it infringes on students’ rights to express themselves.

The rule change was implemented at the start of this semester, with the university saying the displays were a potential fire hazard.

Senior Stefan Klaer and his roommates decided to hang their Black Lives Matter flag toward the beginning of the semester after not getting a clear explanation on why the policy changed from one year to the next.

“We had put it up last year and it wasn’t a problem at all,” Klaer said in an interview Friday. “… I figured if it wasn’t a fire hazard last year, why would it be one now?”

Klaer said it was common last school year to see flags and signs in dorm windows on all sides of the political spectrum as well as nonpolitical displays.

“I’m hoping, ultimately, that the university can either provide a solid analysis or fire code update to justify their rule,” he said. “As of this point, it’s very clear to me that there’s no analysis, no physical reason that it shouldn’t be allowed.”

In an emailed response to questions, MSU spokesman Michael Becker said Student Housing revised its policies before the start of the fall semester and the changes were based on improving overall safety.

The changes make for a safer environment for both students living in the room and first responders who may have to enter a room through the window, Becker said in an emailed response to the Chronicle.

“The policy is content-neutral. Its focus is on ensuring that access to a room isn’t hindered in case of an emergency and that only fire-rated window coverings are used,” Becker wrote.

After hanging the flag along the window blinds, a notice was posted on their dorm door the week of Sept. 5 advising them to take the flag down as it posed a potential fire hazard.

“The wording for a long time was that it couldn’t be on the window so we did that to try and skirt it but they’ve since clarified that it can’t be on the blinds either,” Klaer said, adding he doesn’t see how a flag is anymore of a fire hazard than the blinds might be.

A week later, Klaer and his roommates were told to remove the flag in a text message from their resident adviser. In a screenshot of the message provided to the Chronicle, the student’s resident adviser said, “So unfortunately not only is the flag a potential fire hazard, my boss also said that hanging things in public view can be offensive.”

The resident adviser added no one had reported their flag as offensive, and the students could hang any decorations anywhere in their dorm except for in windows and on the outside of their door.

Becker said the university was aware a resident adviser provided a content-based explanation for the flag’s removal but the policy only considers if the decoration aligns with safety rules in the policy, not the content of it.

“The university is providing its resident advisers and other staff with additional training to ensure they understand and are complying with MSU policies and procedures related to the residence halls and free expression,” Becker said.

Klaer acknowledged that there was likely some miscommunication and both his resident adviser and University Student Housing staff have been wonderful people who were just doing their job.

“I don’t think MSU has any ill intentions or is doing it because of the content of the flag,” he said. “But I do think it’s really important that you be able to outwardly express yourself and on a college campus it’s getting harder and harder to do so.”

Klaer said the residence halls remained one of the last spots students could express themselves, with window flags and hangings a key outlet for that.

“The dorm is the one spot you can continue to return to and have a permanent display of who you are and what you believe,” Klaer said. “… It’s just a little disappointing that’s no longer allowed.”

Klaer filed a case with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group focused on free speech rights on college campuses. It also annually publishes a Worst Colleges for Free Speech list.

Graham Piro, a program officer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said they had received multiple responses from MSU regarding a letter the organization submitted.

“We commend the university for acknowledging that the potential offensiveness of the flag is not legitimate grounds for its removal. However, the university improperly invokes its policies regarding non-university window coverings as justification for taking down the flag,” Piro wrote.

Piro said students at MSU are attending a public university and should feel free to exercise their First Amendment rights. When they do voice those opinions, they should be met with more speech, not university discipline, he said.

MSU’s spokesman said the university remains committed to protecting the free speech rights of the campus community.

After rehanging it for a brief period of time, Klaer said he received another notice on Nov. 3 to remove the flag from his window citing the housing handbook that described it as a fire hazard. As of Friday, the flag was no longer hanging in his window.

Klaer said he was still hopeful to receive concrete reasoning from MSU or for them to roll back the rule if there wasn’t a solid reason for the change.

“I think it’s very important that we don’t let things slowly build up,” he said. “You don’t want to be the frog in the boiling pot.”

Support Local Journalism

To see what else is happening in Gallatin County subscribe to the online paper.

Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.