Student Told to Remove Israel Flag from Dormitory Window
A flag hanging from the window of an MIT dormitory became the center of controversy last month when its owner was asked to take it down and refused.
Administrators said the Israeli flag was a safety hazard and that hanging it outside a window, in a “public space,” violates MIT housing rules and regulations.
Jonathan A. Goler G, the owner of the flag in question, said that when he was first asked to take down the flag, he was told it was because a fellow resident of the Sidney-Pacific Graduate Residence had complained that the flag was offensive.
“My biggest objection is they would ask me to take it down in the first place,” Goler said. “A flag is a symbol that should be out for people to see, and it’s part of the expression.”
“It didn’t matter to us whether the flag was an Israeli flag or a Canadian flag” or anything else, said Anthony E. Gray PhD ’01, a residential life associate. It “had to do with MIT’s housing policies regarding safety and whatnot.”
Nilsson said MIT was concerned with the appearance of the building. Some of MIT’s buildings are “architecturally significant,” and hanging something like a flag from a window “just looks terrible.”
Complaint triggers controversy
Goler said Associate Housemaster Keith N. Hampton came to him on July 2, informing him that he had “received a complaint that the flag was offensive and inflammatory and contrary to the open spirit of the [Sidney-Pacific] courtyard.” Goler said Hampton also mentioned a fire safety issue.
“There’s no question that the issue first came to our attention from a student’s complaint,” Gray said, but once they were aware of it, it was the safety issue they were concerned about.
“It’s not the flag that’s the issue, it’s hanging anything outside the window of a graduate building,” Nilsson said.
Goler’s flag, which he first put up in early June, is still hanging from his window. Nilsson said that the Sidney-Pacific house government would get to decide what to do, but that if they decided to allow Goler to continue to fly his flag, she would ask questions about safety.
Krishnan Sriram G, president of Sidney-Pacific, said that the dormitory’s policies prohibit any object or posting on any doors or corridors inside the building as well as on the exterior of the building. He said that enforcement was the house manager’s role and that the house government was working on better publicizing the policy.
Hampton could not be reached for comment.
MIT concerned about safety
Nilsson said objects hanging from windows posed a number of safety concerns, and that all objects protruding from windows in MIT dormitories -- from flags to air conditioners -- must be approved by the house managers of those dormitories.
An object hanging from a window could be flammable, she said, or the wind might cause it to “bang up against the building and cause damage to the building.” Or it could “become dislodged, fall, and hurt someone or hit a car.”
MIT’s housing policies and regulations state that “the use of flammable decorations, including natural evergreens, in any room, corridor, stairwell, lounge, dining hall, lobby and other public areas is prohibited by Massachusetts fire laws.”
Gray informed Goler via e-mail on July 3 that “your flag is considered flammable decoration by MIT (flammable decorations include more than just evergreens, and run the spectrum from construction paper to bed sheets).”
“I called the Massachusetts fire marshal and said, ‘Is it okay to hang a flag outside your window?’” Goler said, “and they said, ‘Sure, why not?’”
Additionally, the same policies say that “The use of non-flammable decorations must be approved by the House Manager.”
Administrators say Goler is free to hang his flag inside his window.
“Those rules ... are certainly not applied to anyone else for flammable objects in public spaces,” Goler said. “Keith Hampton has a presumably very flammable dried flower wreath on his door.”
Two Israel flags hang at Bexley
Jonathan Battat ’05, a Bexley Hall resident, has two Israeli flags hanging from his windows, which face Massachusetts Avenue.
“That is different [because those have] been reviewed, Nilsson said. They are not “banging against the window.” And “ongoing discussions [about them] are still happening.”
Battat’s flags were “approved by the house manager, the housemaster, and the students,” Gray said. It “hangs on the window,” rather than from the window.
Nilsson and Gray said a process exists for approving banners to be hung on the exteriors of dormitories. This process requires, among other things, that the banner be made flame resistant and that it be approved by the house manager, Gray said. The banner hung at Senior House’s annual Steer Roast is approved each year by this process.
Goler says rules applied selectively
“I think the problem is that Keith Hampton listened to a couple of bigoted students and acted on it,” when he should have told them there was nothing he could do about it, Goler said.
“Tony Gray seemed to be covering for Keith,” he added.
Goler said even if he were in violation of the rules the administrators are pointing too, these rules are not regularly enforced and that this is a selective application of those rules.
Gray said the rules were enforced regularly, citing as an example Bexley’s “I Jerk Off” banner, which is unauthorized and therefore removed every time it goes up. Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict said an anti-war banner was removed from Ashdown House last year for the same reason.
“I don’t think that it’s being selectively enforced,” Gray said.
Fellow students respond
“The problem boiled down to the fact that the person who was telling Jonathan that his flag had to be removed was doing so as a response to pressure” from the complainant, said Maxim Shusteff G, co-president of the MIT Students for Israel, speaking on his own behalf. “To then talk about the flag as a fire safety issue is ... clearly not addressing the root of” the problem.
“If somebody specifically complains about the fact that there’s an Israeli flag and they don’t like the fact that they can see it, the official response to that should be ‘tough,’” he said.
“If somebody chooses to display the flag of Saudi Arabia, I’m not going to go to the administration,” Shusteff said. “I might argue with this person, [or] I might write in to The Tech, [but] I don’t think I have a right ... to complain to the administration.”
Arjun Mendiratta G, a member of the Social Justice Cooperative, said the group saw this as “not so much a free speech issue, [but] more of a community issue.”
“If people in the community feel it’s offensive,” MIT should do something about it, he said.
“MIT has a responsibility to ensure a comfortable living and working environment for all students,” Mendiratta said.
“Looking at this as a free speech issue ignores some of the real points that are there,” he said.
Sriram, the Sidney-Pacific president, said the ban on publicity materials inside the building was out of respect for fellow residents. He said the prohibition on objects and postings on the exterior of the building was for respect for the neighbors, since the building “interfaces with Cambridgeport.”
Keith J. Winstein contributed to the reporting of this story.