Iqra Athar ’26
The recent incident concerning the removal of the two flags from the Trinity College Long Walk has rekindled the debate over the protection of speech under the First Amendment and censorship of opinions. The College administration has argued that the removal is in accordance with a long-standing policy in the Student Handbook stating no object can be placed outside the residence hall windows for safety reasons. It has, nevertheless, again paved the way to the great old controversy reflecting the complex balance between equality and liberty. This article hence seeks to address the complicated nature of freedom of speech on campus and understand the relevance of the First Amendment to private institutions like Trinity.
Unlike public institutions, which are state agents, private universities are not necessarily required to respect all the First Amendment rights of students. This is the law. The Bill of Rights isn’t always entirely applicable to these institutions—even despite the fact that they receive significant federal funding. However, the majority of private universities have traditionally claimed themselves to be defenders of free thought and expression like Trinity, as noted from the recent email by its President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, who wrote, “I write to reaffirm and restate clearly that Trinity College supports the freedom of speech and expression of our students.” Since private institutions have established themselves as places where free speech is protected, they should be held to the same standard as public institutions. Hence, it is here that the private institutions should be obligated to provide what they promise; however, it isn’t that simple.
It is important to recognize that private institutions are complex and unique; and the issue of liberty is often riddled with trade-offs of equality. Despite not being strictly held to constitutional standards, private institutions like Trinity have moral peremptory to address injustice. Simultaneously, these private institutions, as advocates of democracy, have a commitment to encouraging an open forum which shields individuals from external restraints. But how far the latter is possible in accordance with the former point is questionable. These conflicting objectives are difficult to reconcile particularly with the rather broad and subjective definition of liberty. Professor Doberah Stone in her book Policy Paradox further highlights this by pointing to how “one person’s equality comes at expense of others liberty.” Hence, it becomes important to strike a balance between the liberty of individuals and the demand of civil society. While the Supreme Court recognizes exceptions to First Amendment rights like the fighting words, fraud, obscenity and threats, there is still a lot of room left uncovered where under some circumstances, limited restrictions on free speech and expression may be necessary to safeguard the legitimate assumptions of people.
While the voices raised by the owners of the flags are heard, it is important to recognize the feelings of the community as well towards those who saw the flags as symbols of oppression. Particularly the Gadsden flag which, while it might have originated from patriotic feelings, has observed a shifting symbolism with white supremacist groups who are associated with racial hatred.
At the same time, it is important to realize and assess one’s academic freedom and rights to freely express their views as stated in the Student Handbook. Higher education institutions are important agents in any democratic society. They foster and promote independent thinking and the exchange of conflicting ideas, which builds upon students’ autonomous identity. Suppressive speech and racist expressions pose a threat to the building of an organized and inclusive society and hence should be restricted—not to mention the moral and philosophical arguments which underpin these as well. Civil discourse and conversation should be encouraged within colleges, allowing students to highlight the issues that affect them the most. The administrators should further recognize student needs when enacting and ensuring compliance with such policies on pressing concerns. Hence, the universities and students form the primary actors in such debates of resolving such entangled issues.
So, how strikable is the balance between liberty and equality?