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'It’s just a word': Students criticize 'censorship' of dorm window signs

<p>Students in Hollows Quad have put up window signs during the pandemic, but Duke has rules in place regarding what students can display in their windows.</p>

Students in Hollows Quad have put up window signs during the pandemic, but Duke has rules in place regarding what students can display in their windows.

The students living in Hollows Quad are no strangers to looking outside and noticing passersby taking photos of their dorm room windows—but they can’t put whatever they want there. 

Students in Duke’s newest West Campus dorm are using sticky notes to create words or pictures on the glass, and in some cases neighbors work together to create cross-window sentences. Examples range from advice like “wear yo masks” to more random phrases such as “crab legs,” “oh no” and “we love the D’Amelios.”

Although this is not the first case of window signs at the University, the signs can now bring a little extra joy to campus in the midst of the pandemic. However, Duke has rules in place regarding what students have to post on their windows.

Hollows A Residence Coordinator Briana Enty told residents in a Sept. 28 email obtained by The Chronicle that although there have not been any issues so far with the windows, there is an expectation that “all signs or flags posted in windows should be approved by the RC before posting.”

She warned that if the sign is considered “inappropriate” or “bias/hate speech” and students fail to remove it if asked, there will be an “automatic referral to student conduct.”

Although the email said there had not been issues, one student said they believe the email was sent because of them and their suitemate. The student, who asked to remain anonymous, said that they wanted to put up a sign that said “men suck” on their window, as it was a joke between the two of them and would be funny alongside the other Hollows windows with similar unimportant phrases.

However, soon after putting it up, they messaged their resident assistant to ask if it would be considered appropriate.

“I sent a picture of the sign and said, ‘Hi, we want to put this up as a joke but wanted to check with you if this is OK to put up or if it is breaking any rules’ or if it is considered hate speech, because if someone put up, ‘Women suck,’ obviously people would want that taken down,” they said.

The student said their RA asked Enty and was told it was best to take the sign down. However, as they were under the impression that most people would read it and take it as a joke, they questioned what specific Hollows policy or Duke rule it would be breaking.

“There was no standard for the whole process,” they said. “Apparently we needed RC approval, but, from what I thought, none of the other signs got RC approval. We understood where she was coming from but not what the actual rules for the signs are. I don't think there's anything in the Duke rules that the signs would break.”

The suitemates were told to take their sign down on Sept. 26, and the email from Enty—asking residents to get approval on all signs—was sent out Sept. 28.

The RA declined to comment. In response to a request for comment, Enty referred The Chronicle to Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life

Gonzalez commented on the email with a brief statement on Duke’s history of monitoring windows. 

“Duke has a proud history of supporting free speech and continues to do so,” Gonzalez wrote. “This policy, enacted some years ago, created parameters to ensure a safer process for those choosing to hang banners outside their windows.”

Gonzalez wrote that banners used to be “fairly common” before windows were sealed to help the efficiency of Duke’s HVAC systems. 

“To my knowledge, no significant issues have occurred with this policy and students have worked with their RC to make any needed adjustments,” he wrote. 

Other students living in the Hollows argued that forcing students to take down their window signs, while understandable, is not the best course of action.

Sophomores Tommy Shen and Connor Haughey have become small campus celebrities for being the owners of the “WAP Room,” as their dorm room window features sticky notes spelling out the three large letters. They said that although they are “not going to confirm what it means,” as the ambiguity is fun, they have received “many different guesses” of its meaning.

“We’ve gotten ‘wings and pizza.’ We’ve gotten ‘we are powerful.’ We've gotten ‘women are powerful,’ and we live in an all-women block so we’re kind of here for that,” Shen said.

Shen and Haughney were two of the first Hollows residents to put sticky-notes in their window. They didn’t mean to start a trend by putting the sign up, but they enjoy the sense of community that the signs have brought to the dorm. The students living in the two floors above them joined in and created a cross-window sentence by adding the words “that’s” and “a” before “WAP.”

“We know the people on the floor above us, but we don’t know the people two floors above us, so [the signs] are a socially distant, completely safe way of bonding,” Haughney said. “Obviously our intention wasn't to make more people put them up, but it's really cute, and it feels bigger with COVID because, when we're all locked in our rooms, it's our way of communicating.”

Shen and Haughney said that they regularly see both students and employees take pictures of the sign. 

“If we had to take it down we would, because I know Duke is very no-nonsense this semester with any kind of correction,” Haughney said. “But I would definitely fight for it, because it’s making people smile and there’s no harm in it whatsoever. I would ask that Duke is more understanding with students because we're all just trying to find safe ways to have fun. There are also no visitors on campus right now, so it’s not tarnishing their image.”

Not only does the sign make those on campus laugh, but it also represents a greater message that Shen and Haughney want to convey to students.

“We're not confirming if the sign is in reference to the song or not, but [‘WAP’] became almost an iconic feminist song, since, historically speaking, the topic has been very stigmatized,” Shen said. “In the song, two black women are proudly flaunting their sexuality, and as both gay men here, it’s really important for us to embrace everyone and allow people to have a safe space to express themselves.”

Other students in Hollows have similar signs in their windows with the intent of spreading positivity.

Inspired by Shen and Haughney’s sign, sophomores Chloe Schaefgen, Katie Spencer, Viviana Geron and Jessica Wey used Post-it notes in their own dorm window. They decided to write the word “boob,” not having much of an explanation for why but just wanting to join the fun.

“Everyone asks, ‘Why did you do that?’, and I say, ‘Why not?’” Schaefgen said. “It was random, but I've only received positive feedback about it. A lot of my friends, before they knew it was my room, would take pictures of our window and put it on their stories, saying, ‘This is what college is like.’”

In response to the email sent to Hollows residents about needing RC permission to put up signs, the suitemates said they do not understand the problem with random, funny words that don’t seem to be impacting anyone.

“It seems sort of like censorship and a little out of the blue, as Post-its in windows have been going on at Duke and other colleges for a while,” Schaefgen said. “There’s no reason to sexualize [‘boob’]—it’s just a word. Obviously if someone said, ‘That makes me uncomfortable,’ I'd respond, ‘OK, why?’, and have a conversation about it. But if someone just asked me to take it down, I'd like some sort of explanation to see if it's unanimous or if other windows have to take their stuff down too.”

Even if they were told their sign needs to be taken down, the suitemates would try to find a way to continue making people smile.

“Honestly, there are so many things that we can't do this year, and when we got the email, I was like, ‘Can we at least have boob?’” Spencer said. “If someone told us to take it down, we’ve thought about taking one letter down. We haven't decided yet which one. It could be ‘boo’ for Halloween, or it could be ‘oob,’ I like ‘oob’ a lot.”

Alison Korn

Alison Korn is a Pratt sophomore and a features managing editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.


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