Louisiana State University finds itself at the center of a First Amendment debate this week. A group of over 100 protesters has made its opposition clear to the prevalence of purple and gold Confederate flags at Tiger football games.
"Some enterprising individuals … have had that Confederate battle jack flag produced in the LSU purple and gold colors," Michael Ruffner, vice chancellor for communications at LSU, said. "During some tailgating activities and sometimes during the game, they wave the flag."
While Ruffner said the university does not endorse the flag and discourages its use, LSU has declined to ban the flag from campus, citing its protection under the First Amendment.
"We do not authorize use of the LSU colors on this flag. We don't encourage that," Ruffner remarked. "[But] we're not going to ban a flag or a symbol that anyone uses because that's, we believe, very sacrosanct."
Tanya Chapman, a 2002 graduate of LSU, has been active in protests against her alma mater's toleration of the flag for a number of years and moderated a discussion of the flag and other issues of racism at a forum in Baton Rouge Tuesday night.
She said she would like to see the university ban the flag, but acknowledges such an all-encompassing action may not be possible. Instead she expressed a desire for LSU to more readily use its power and its sway to strongly condemn the flag's use on campus.
"[They] can go ahead and strongly support and back up the students who are totally against it," Chapman said. "I think they should heavily support not having that flag on campus."
University of Wisconsin political science professor Donald Downs said LSU is probably correct in its decision not to ban the flag, as he noted the First Amendment protects the use of the flag as long as it is not deemed a threat or "fighting words."
"You can't restrict it because of its offensiveness except in specifically defined situations where it's a threat," Downs said. "It's hard to make [the] argument that its sheer existence at a tailgating [event] would constitute a threat."
UW law professor Gerald Thain agreed with Downs' analysis, saying the First Amendment protection of the flag depends on the message expressed by the symbol.
"While it's true that some people who are waving the Confederate flag are talking about [racism], undoubtedly there are other people who think of it differently," Thain said. "The question is, what's the general message a symbol like that creates in most people?"
Downs said the Confederate flag differs from the Nazi swastika, for example, because whereas the swastika has obvious anti-Semitic overtones, the Confederate flag means vastly different things to different people.
"LSU students and LSU supporters feel this flag is symbolic of Southern pride and courage and has nothing to do with intolerance or racial discrimination," Ruffner said. "This is what the First Amendment is all about. In essence, this is the First Amendment in action."
Chapman said she has mixed feelings about the symbolism of the Confederate flag. In its original colors, she said, she respects the interpretation Ruffner cited, but when adorned in LSU colors, she said her toleration disappears.
"If the flag to you really does mean Southern heritage and remembering the Civil War and paying homage to the people that fought for the war, [then don't] put it in different colors," Chapman said. "LSU is in the South. LSU is majority Caucasians, so [they think] we'll use this just to let them know we still rule — that's the feeling I get."
Ruffner said the university has taken actions to resolve the issue from a number of angles, including asking local flag vendors not to print the Confederate flag in LSU colors and discussing the First Amendment with its students.
"We're engaged in dialogue with all of our students and we're making efforts to explain the First Amendment to them," he said. "The First Amendment works both ways, both your side and the other side."