There is another free speech fight brewing at Ohio Northern University. According to the site College Reform, Ohio Northern College Republicans were denied approval of apparel featuring “Back the Blue” on the sleeve and a Thin Blue Line flag printed on the back. Even though the shirts did not include references to ONU, the university still barred the design due to other schools being forced “to retract and apologize” for such designs. It is another variation of the “heckler’s veto” where (in this case private) schools intervene to stop lectures or expressive activities due to the objections of others.
“Back the Blue” is obviously an expression loaded with political and social meaning in support for police officers. The denial of such expression is content-based censorship.
College Republicans president Madeline Markwood noted that the student handbook does not require such pre-approval but that the group wanted to work with the university in good faith. In emails obtained by Campus Reform, ONU associate director of Communications and Marketing Sheila Baumgartner wrote to Markwood on September 17 to emphasize the “sensitivity” of the design and the need to discuss the request with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion board and the Office of Multicultural Development office.
Baumgartner then stated “[t]hey then discussed as a group and would recommend not moving forward with this project. There are several schools who allowed Blue Lives initiatives who have had to retract and apologize.”
He cited such incidents as Emerson College apologizing for displaying the Thin Blue Line flag. Notably, the controversy at Emerson was the use of a Blue Lives Matter flag on as an office computer screensaver. This is the denial of the use of such symbols by students.
ONU then suggested a meeting with the Office of Multicultural Development and Interim Director of Multicultural Development Albertina Walker agreed to meet to discuss “thin blue line flag and its complicated place right now in American culture.” The meeting appeared to get derailed when Walker said that the office needs to “understand what it means for your organization to ‘support the Police Union’ by selling its paraphernalia” so that she can “understand [Markwood’s] perspective.”
Markwood said (correctly) that the students should not need to explain their support for police or justify it.
Ohio Northern University is a private institution, not a state school. It is not the government shutting down the speech in the classic heckler’s veto but the effect is the same with officials barring expression by citing the opposition of others. Imagine if the school barred “Black Lives Matter” displays or other such causes. It is discriminating on the basis of the content of the messages on the basis that some are too “controversial.” It invites bias and selective regulation.
Ohio Northern University should reverse this course and remove such objections in the interests of free speech.