Free to be ignorant: University should not squelch expression

On early Monday morning, the East Campus bridge was defaced with various homophobic epithets, but thanks to the dutiful effort of Public Safety, the campus community was spared the sight.

Members of the Duke Gay and Lesbian Association had painted the bridge for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Awareness Week. Their handiwork was destroyed by the unknown bridge painter(s) who wrote such insightful comments as "Kill fags" and "I beat dykes," as well as covering up the word "pride" with "shame."

The cowardly act illustrates all too well the blatant homophobia that exists in society at large. Homosexuals face a range of discrimination, from subtle looks to outright violence. The same hatred that fueled the bridge cover-up fuels violence against gays nationwide.

As offensive and reprehensible as the bridge painting was, however, Public Safety officers should not have taken it upon themselves to cover it up. As an agent of the University, Public Safety should not spend its time censoring public expression.

Paintings on the bridge are a form of public expression, not vandalism. If someone had painted homophobic epithets (or anything else) on the Allen Building, Public Safety can and should remove the material. But the bridge is traditionally a public forum and as such must be free of administrative censorship. It is a unique area that the University has allowed to become public; painting material on the bridge (whether offensive or not) is not the same as painting the Allen Building or anything else.

Public Safety has the legal right to paint over the bridge. It has said that it did so on Monday morning because the words were "offensive" and "inciting." But in a University dedicated to the free interplay of ideas, should the police force be making decisions about what ideas are appropriate?

Several years ago, the Kappa Alpha fraternity decorated the bridge with a huge Confederate flag, a symbol that could be interpreted as both inciting and offensive. Public Safety did not paint over the flag, nor should it have.

What about a hypothetical bridge painting that exhorted students to fight for their rights by storming the Allen Building? That could certainly be considered "inciting," especially from the administration's standpoint. Public Safety should not be given the authority to paint over it.

The decision to paint over the bridge sets a bad precedent. The same logic that suppressed the bridge painting potentially could be applied to other public forums. For example, should Public Safety arrest an "inciting" or "offensive" speaker on the quad?

The University should not make content-based judgments on what is or is not appropriate for the University community to see expressed on the bridge or in any other public forum. If a student or group had determined that the bridge painting was offensive and wanted to cover it up, they certainly could have done so. But the administration should not make that decision.


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