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COLUMN

Blowin’ in the Wind

Larry Benedict

We lived in a condominium once. Seemed like a good idea at the time: no trash to haul, no stairs or walkway to shovel in the winter time, no outdoor maintenance. The “Association” took care of all that.

When we actually bought it, we got a deed, about a page long, and an Association Manual, about 50 pages long. The manual was part of the deal and told us all the things we could and we couldn’t do, though mostly the latter. We couldn’t plant flowers next to our walkway, or put lawn furniture on the grass behind our patio, or put anything up like a volleyball net. We couldn’t swim in the pool before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. during the summer. We couldn’t put anything on our front door (let alone paint it red, which my wife wanted to do). We could hang nothing on the patio or the building itself, and we could put nothing in our windows, either outside or inside.

These were the rules. It was part of living in this particular community. For a while, living in that community was novel and comfortable, but as time wore on, it became too restrictive for us and we moved.

Many residential communities have rules. They’re not always popular, but they are the rules. Recently a controversy has arisen on campus over a student wanting to hang a flag outside his residence hall room. MIT’s housing office has a rule that a student may not hang anything outside his or her room: laundry, blankets, banners, and flags to name a few. There are a number of reasons for this rule ranging from the purely aesthetic to the safety issue. For example, a large banner framed with wooden supports might fall and injure someone.

This is not a free speech issue as some have tried to frame it, but rather a landlord/tenant and community issue. As one of my staff noted, “It is important to separate important philosophical and political matters worthy of serious discussion in an educational community from fairly simple safety concerns. As an expression of personal or political freedom, the statement embodied by a flag is made regardless of whether it is posted in front of or behind the glass of a room window.”

MIT does allow certain posters or banners to be hung outside a residence hall with prior permission. The process requires that a banner be hung in such a way that it will not fall down or blow away, thereby posing a safety hazard. It also requires that it be there for a specified period of time only, and then taken down.

Not all rules are popular with everyone and this rule is no exception. Rules at MIT are reviewed from time to time with student input, and perhaps it is time to review this rule again.

In the meantime, the rule stands. It has been pointed out that at at least one residence hall, flags have been allowed to hang outside a window. That is true of the past but no longer. The policy is now being evenly enforced to be fair to everyone.

Larry Benedict is Dean for Student Life.