Arizona school fails in flag flap

September 21, 2011


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.

— Mike Hoeflich, a distinguished professor in the Kansas University School of Law, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.


denak 6 years, 8 months ago

Personally, I agree that the students did nothing wrong. However, I wonder if people would be so quick to criticize the administrators if the students were handing out pamphlets that read "9/11 was an inside job" or a flag representing the Taliban.

Just because their actions were wrapped up in patriotism doesn't mean that they didn't violate the school's policy on when and where political activities can take place.

It is not more any more correct to condone lawlessness just because one agrees with the message any more than it is to use the law to suppress a message one finds objectionable.

xdcr 6 years, 8 months ago

I don't know what would happem if the students were handing out Taliban flags, however I have an idea what would happen to them if they were in Iran handing out American flags.

jonas_opines 6 years, 8 months ago

I love these vague and pointless insinuation of actions in the Middle East posts, because they're so relevant Every time that they're brought up.

But certainly, let's continue to look to Iran when deciding on a benchmark for how we should conduct touchy legal affairs here in the United States. As long as we can claim to be marginally better than them, there should be no problem, right?

Jock Navels 6 years, 8 months ago

totally irrelevant statement. I bet you know what happens to them in the Yukon if they hand out canapes as well, eh?

jaywalker 6 years, 8 months ago

What lawlessness? The police acknowledged they had no cause and the administrators changed their tune from violation of policy to insubordination, suggesting they were full of it from the start. You even start off your post saying they did nothing wrong. And I'm hard pressed to view handing out our flag on a day of commemoration as "political activity."
As to your alternatives, I believe the administrators would have better footing in order to prevent a serious altercation. Such actions would be incendiary, to say the least. Halting them before someone got hurt would be paramount.

denak 6 years, 8 months ago

You missed the point.

What I believe personally is irrelevant.

If there is a statute or a rule in place that dictates the time and manner of a political activity, that rule should apply across the board regardless of whether the activity is patriotic or non-patriotic.

The rules of the university and the laws of society in general should not be arbitrarily enforced just because one form of speech is acceptable (in other words patriotic ) .

Is Mr. Hoeflich really suggesting that it is ok to break the law as long as you mean well?

Also, I would like to know how Mr. Hoeflich knows that the administrators are 'far less patriotic" than the students. I'm pretty sure in a courtroom he wouldn't be able to make that assumption. Does he know their state of mind??? Does it possibly assume facts not in evidence?

jaywalker 6 years, 8 months ago

What point did I supposedly miss? No law was broken nor were any university regulations broken or the administrators wouldn't have abandoned them so quickly and stooped to "'Cuz we said so." And again, handing out American flags to commemorate 9/11 is hardly a "political activity." The "lawlessness" you allude to never existed here. The police correctly stated it was not in their purview to act, and while the administrators chose to make a squawk and pretend they had a leg to stand on - they didn't. So this whole 'arbitrary enforcement' argument is of your own making.


I never have nor ever will pretend I'm the arbiter of who is and isn't patriotic. Nor do I care for Mr. Hoeflich's estimation on the subject. Why you choose to pepper me with questions about his motives or intuition is beyond me.

Blessed4x 6 years, 8 months ago

Would this "Cherry picking" of laws also apply, in your mind, to illegal immigration? Just trying to get a feel for where you come down on the enforcement of laws.

jaywalker 6 years, 8 months ago

Correct. 'Cept what law did they supposedly choose to disobey?

Bob Forer 6 years, 8 months ago

Somewhat similar to an incident over twenty years ago at KU, when Ron Kuby and company unfurled a banner at commencement that read "Protect First Amendment Rights at KU." (As an aside, I understand that the action was the brainchild of KU Professor Norm Forer). The "culprits" were arrested on the order of Chancellor Archie Dykes. I understand KU Police Director Jim Denny was outraged over Dykes intemperate and illegal heavy-handedness and almost resigned.

Bob Forer 6 years, 8 months ago

Correction: the incident happened over thirty years ago. I believe it was 1979.

Jock Navels 6 years, 7 months ago

may ron kuby live a long and fruitful life and in the meantime maybe save us from ourselves.

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