It continues to amaze me that some university administrators remain so detached from the social and political views of the general American public that they manage to create incidents that bring nothing but scorn upon themselves and the institutions they serve. This is precisely what happened at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., on Sept. 11 this year, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the United States.
To mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, three politically conservative NAU students gathered outside the NAU student union to distribute small paper American flags. Those readers who remember the months following the 9/11 attacks will remember that the wearing of flag pins was a controversial issue for some Americans, particularly on more liberal college campuses. But most of us thought that that particular controversy was long past. Apparently, however, at NAU some administrators still have problems with those who would display or distribute our flag.
The problem began when it began to rain and the three students moved into a covered part of the union. One left and two remained to distribute the remaining flags. Soon after, an administrator appeared and told them that they could not continue because they hadn’t obtained a vendor’s license. The problem with this, of course, was that they weren’t selling anything. Therefore, three more administrators appeared in progression to say that the university had rules regulating the “time, place, and manner” in which students could engage in political activities on campus and that handing out flags in the student union was a violation of these rules.
Finally, the administrators called for the police to come to deal with the students. The police officer who arrived on the scene was a good deal smarter than the university administrators and told the students it was not a police matter. At that point the students were told that they were likely to be charged with disciplinary violations as a result of refusing to move when told to do so by the administrators.
Aside from being far more patriotic than the administrators, the students were also a great deal smarter because one of them had a video camera and filmed the entire episode. To suggest that the administrators came across as fools and petty tyrants is far too mild a suggestion. The university, of course, decided to drop all charges against the students. The students have become popular heroes in Arizona.
Lawyers and law professors have filled blogs with discussions of whether or not the administrators were correct in their interpretation of the First Amendment and permissible restrictions on speech on college campuses (the consensus is that they were not). But, generally, the lesson from all this is that it would seem that some university administrators simply are so far removed from the everyday reality of the American people that they can do incredibly insensitive things. It would appear that common sense and common decency are not requirements for administrative positions at Northern Arizona University.