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Clear Ban on Posters, Flags is Recommended

By Keith J. Winstein


>> View: Flag Committee Report Excerpts

An administrator-student committee has recommended that the MIT Housing Department adopt an unambiguous and consistent campus-wide ban on flags, posters, signs, and other materials from being hung from or attached to dormitory exteriors.

The committee, convened last October by Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict, was formed in response to last summer’s flag controversy, when the Housing Department began to construe its policy on “alterations and additions” to require several students who hung flags outside their dormitory windows to remove them or bring them inside.

Flag debate sparks committee

Several students who had hung flags -- American, Canadian, and Israeli -- outside their windows were required to take them down or move them inside under the new interpretation of the rule, which forbids dormitory residents to “alter or add to any part of the building structure, mechanical, or electrical systems.”

Previously, the Housing Department had not interpreted or enforced the rule to forbid students from hanging flags out of their windows. But a student’s July 2003 complaint against Jonathan A. Goler G, who had dangled an Israeli flag from his window at Sidney-Pacific, eventually prompted the new MIT-wide enforcement of the “alterations and additions” rule to forbid students from hanging flags, and in one case led Benedict to require the removal of Israeli flags that had hung at Bexley Hall for more than three years, said Jonathan Battat ’05, the current occupant of the room above the flags.

With Goler threatening legal action and a heated discussion playing out at a series of Undergraduate Association forums and in The Tech’s opinion pages, Benedict convened the committee in October “to review the current policy in housing about not making any additions or alterations to our residence halls.”

The committee, chaired by associate dean Julie B. Norman, included representatives of the UA, Graduate Student Council, and Dormitory Council.

“I have circulated it among some staff and have had no suggested changes so barring anything really surprising at the [Housing Strategy Group] meeting we are prepared to accept the report,” Benedict wrote in an e-mail. The Housing Strategy Group includes several students and administrators and will discuss the report on Feb. 18. “I find the report to be very thorough and sensitive to the needs of our community,” he wrote. (See excerpts, page 13.)

Committee sought clarity in rule

The report lists as its first recommendation: “No materials may be placed, affixed, hung or extended from any exterior surface of a MIT residence, including rooftops.”

Norman, the committee chair, said clarity and uniformity were the motivations for the committee’s recommendation for a universal ban on exterior materials.

“We wanted to be very clear on what the policy is so there isn’t a lot of gray area,” Norman said.

Ease of enforcement was also a motivation, she said. “We felt we needed something that the whole campus had to live by, that was clear and uniform. If there were unique exterior rules and regulations for Bexley and then they move to Next House, well, it becomes confusing and it becomes hard for Housing to enforce.”

The committee listed as its guiding principles “Preservation of the architectural integrity of the exterior of buildings on the MIT campus complex,” and “Preservation of the cultural uniqueness of MIT residential communities,” and also recommended that “Each residence, through their house government, develop their own guidelines for materials that may be displayed within their residence.”

Emily E. Cofer ’04, the dormitory council president, said the Council would discuss the committee’s Jan. 23 report at a future meeting and had not reached an opinion on it.

Posters not two-way, members say

An important consideration, committee members said, was that the group believed it should encourage two-way communication and mutual understanding, and that posting materials on the exterior of dormitories would not foster such two-way communication and understanding.

“Things on the outside of a building aren’t a two-way medium,” said Benjamin Navot ’07, the UA representative on the committee. “They’re not a discussion. It’s just a statement.”

Goler’s Israeli flag is “just an in-your face thing, and that’s not what personal expression should be about,” he said. “He wanted just to state things and not to have a reply. It becomes almost harassing in a sense,” he said.

“It’s not a matter of discussing,” Navot said, “and it’s a forum of discussing and understanding people that was being aimed for. And that doesn’t come across in the report,” he said.

Norman voiced similar sentiments. “If someone’s offended, it’s inappropriate for us to stay in their face,” she said. “We can all voice an opinion, but we all have to allow someone who doesn’t agree with us to respond and engage us in dialogue,” she said.

“I think one of the underlying ideals is that we can’t put our individual desires in front of the community,” Norman said. “We certainly believe in free expression, but I think you have to look at, ‘What is expression, and what is communication?’” she said.

UA rep. supports compromise

Navot, who in October introduced a resolution in the UA Senate to ask the Housing Department to permit flag-hanging, described the committee’s final report as a compromise he would support.

“Not everyone agrees wholeheartedly with everything that’s there, but that was the compromise that was reached between undergraduates, faculty, graduate students, and everyone,” he said.

“I personally don’t disagree with people postering on the outsides of windows,” he said, but “there are so many thousands of small issues that arise when you open that door, and there are so many liabilities,” he said.

“The most important thing that needs to be noted is that we were not dealing at all with the specifics of Jon Goler’s case,” Navot said. “The policy on alterations and admissions was vague and outdated, and needed to be looked at.”

Exceptions possible, members say

Despite the stark language of the recommendation to ban all “materials” from the exterior of dormitories, Norman said the Housing Department might develop some exceptions.

“The Housing Department would have to develop all the specifics of how they would enforce this policy,” she said. “If there were any periods of exceptions, that would be again a housing implementation policy,” for instance, “whether or not, during Orientation, hanging banners would be acceptable or not.”

“That is not part of the discussion we wanted to get into because we believe that’s implementation,” she said.