The Miami Report

News and Public Information Office
Glos Center
Miami University
Oxford, Ohio 45056
(513) 529-7592
(513) 529-1950 fax


Editor’s note: Commentary provides university faculty and staff an opportunity to express their opinions in The Miami University Report. Contributions should be no longer than 500-600 words in length and should be directed to Bill Houk (physics), Published commentaries also will be posted online at

Freedom of Speech and the University: Balancing Rights and Responsibilities
Rodney D. Coates, sociology and gerontology, black world studies

Recently a series of events have challenged Miami University to qualify its stance on so-called Freedom of Speech. At issue was a Fine Arts student’s attempt to creatively express his ideas regarding life and death. His representation included several nooses (symbolizing death) and tires (symbolizing life) that he hung on trees on the Oxford campus. After investigation by both Oxford police and Miami officials, the display was ordered removed. While the action was right, unfortunately many may not understand why. First of all, as I discussed previously:
Many might ask what exactly is the problem with nooses, and why would anyone be offended. Perhaps if we look into the not so distant past in America when thousands of blacks and others were lynched with no protection from either local or national officials, they will come to realize that the noose, much like the swastika, is an emblem of torture, violence and intimidation. These are not random images, but typify a threat. America, in general, and college campuses in particular must be free of such threats. When one is threatened we are all threatened, when one is singled out we are all singled out.

Subsequent to that, I further clarified why this particularly incident was a violation of freedom of speech.

I would like to expand on my response by adding that even when speech is limited, it must provide clear guidelines that indicate that it is not prohibited. That is to say, it may designate some spaces where such speech, limited in other spaces, may be expressed in others. What this means is that this particular display might have been allowed with certain caveats. That is to say, this very same display placed within an art exhibit designed and arranged as to allow persons a “choice” as to whether or not they wanted to view it (such as in an art gallery, rooms or forums set aside for such displays, etc.) would not have been a violation of freedom of speech. Let me explain it this way:

This particular display, without any concern for the public, any forewarning etc., meant that innocent students were obliged to partake without their consent. Put another way, protest actions, civil discourse which is offensive, art which is offensive (such as Mapplethorpe, swastikas, nooses, etc.) must have access to the university. In fact not only freedom of speech, but also critical thinking requires contrary discourse space to be explored. This does not mean sanctioning, promoting or condoning anything. For example, we have frequently allowed the airing of “The Vagina Monologues” at our campus. If this were done for example on the quad, with no advance publicity, nor any explanation why it was being performed in this space, it might be viewed as offensive, intimidating and therefore should be banned from this space. Alternatively, by having this performed in an auditorium, where individuals have a choice to attend, then it represents an example of freedom of speech.

At stake is balancing the rights of the individual and institutions with the responsibilities of the individual and institutions. We must do both! And that is our challenge. Critical thinking, freedom and what we do as educators demands nothing less.

On a final note, educational institutions must also provide the space for making and correcting mistakes. To overly condemn an individual for making a mistake without providing the space for corrections means that we fail in our tasks. We must be clear, in this instance, the problem was not the display, it was its placement. The response was not particularly aimed at the display, but its placement. The error or mistake in judgment was in where this was placed, how it was placed, and why it was placed. We must ensure that we balance our concerns with rights with responsibilities.

Date Published: 12/13/2007
Volume: 27   Number: 12


© 2012 | Miami University | 501 East High Street | Oxford, Ohio 45056 | 513.529.1809 | Equal opportunity in education and employment | Privacy Statement