Britons Break the Silence — Campus responds to Randall’s statement

After Albion College President Donna Randall issued a statement on Nov. 10 regarding the gay pride flag burning, the Pleiad received several responses from faculty, students and organizations on campus. Here are a few that were submitted.

 W. Jeffrey Wilson, professor of psychology, had his own view of the proceedings as a faculty member:

 The burning of a gay-pride flag does not reflect the values of the vast majority of students and faculty at Albion College.  Sexual orientation is as much a part of someone’s being as is their handedness or eye color; it is not a choice or lifestyle, but rather is determined by events of brain development that occur well before birth,” Wilson said.  “The burning of the gay-pride flag should evoke in all of us the same reaction as does the burning of a cross – it is an intimidating and threatening act directed at a group because of who they are, not because of what they have done.”

 He continued on what he thought should have happened.

 “I wish that the College administration had openly denounced the act at the time when it occurred and not 3 weeks later.  We all have the right to express ourselves freely, but that right brings with it the obligation to accept condemnation when our expression crosses the line from rational and thoughtful discourse to open hostility and irrational threat,” Wilson said.

Eric Highers, Monroe junior, issued this response to Randall’s statement:

“I feel unsatisfied; I felt that (Randall’s response) was the bare minimum. I felt like to a degree that it was just to save face. I thought it was a day late and a dollar short and she (Randall) needs to think how to ensure our (LGBTQ) safety and security is assured. She needs to look at or revamp the discrimination and harassment policy to what applies to symbolic speeches of hate and outline specific consequences for such actions,” Highers said.

David Gentile, Ann Arbor senior, contributed an editorial from a Libertarian perspective:

The recent burning of a gay flag has the college in a buzz of debate, emotions, and opinions.  As a libertarian, I do not believe this action to be a punishable offense.  So it is clear, libertarians are no enemies of homosexuals; we have fought for same-sex marriages, full adoption rights, and overturning any State laws banning homosexuality, essentially calling to “legalize” being gay. However, I do not think burning any flags (gay, religious, or even American) is an “offense” which deserves a punishment.  Offenses involve the immoral use of force against an individual person. The burning of the flag was not an act of force against a person but a free expression of speech.    

Our freedom of speech is granted to us in the first amendment of the Constitution, but further than that it is a fundamental right we possess by our humanity.  We alone control our thoughts and the expression of those thoughts.  This means we have the freedom to express everything, even ideas others consider offensive or wrong.  Imagine how static the world would become if all speech that was considered “offensive” were completely outlawed.  As an atheist I would not be able to criticize religious beliefs, or vice-versa.  Scientists would have to stop publishing articles on evolution because they upset creationists.  Comedians everywhere would have to travel underground to perform their “harmful” sarcasm and mockeries.  In all seriousness though, our freedom of expression cannot be arbitrary, it must be universally respected or it is meaningless.

Since I believe liberty and rights exist only at the individual level I reject any claims to “group rights” that many minorities have fought for.  The individual’s freedom to expression protects such acts as burning a gay pride flag, regardless of how offensive the homosexual community may find it, since the individual’s rights are above the “rights” of homosexuals as a group.  Many have claimed that this act is an example of a “hate crime”.  However, there is no such thing as a “hate” crime – all violent crimes are done with hate.  To claim that a crime carries harsher weight because it discriminates against a group reveals an inconsistency in logic: minorities who fight for equal rights contest that people who hold particular beliefs and lifestyles should be granted the exact rights as everyone else, but then they argue if an offense is committed against them it should be punished harsher.  Either we are all equal and thus must be treated equally under the law, or we are not equal and must be treated differently under the law – you cannot reasonably argue for both.  Again, I believe only in individual rights so that each person must receive equal treatment under the law.  A crime is a crime regardless whether it was done to a homosexual or heterosexual, an atheist or a Christian, an African-American or a white.

So it follows that burning a flag does not become a crime because it happens to be a gay pride flag.  If I burned a Girl Scout flag I owned, should the Girl Scouts claim “hate” crime?  I would hope not, since our private property rights allow us to do with our property whatever we choose to do – whether that is flying a flag on a pole or burning it.  If the students had stolen the flag then burned it that would be an entirely different issue.  But these students did not steal this flag; they claimed it from a trashcan (why it was there is another question) and did not harm any homosexual students in this process or in the act of burning the flag.  This crude expression of speech deserves no more punishment than the gay pride rally does – our individual rights protect both equally. 

Having said that, I want to be clear that I think this incident was offensive.  I believe it deserves nothing less than full social criticism and calls for open and honest conversations about different views on homosexuality.  Punishment for something that is not a crime is not the solution, and will only exacerbate the problem.  Libertarians continually complain about the ineffectuality of “victim-less” crimes.  For example, we argue the ‘War on Drugs’ throws innocent individuals in prison for possessing plants grown in the ground while actually increasing violence by empowering drug cartels and black markets.  But more than just being ineffectual, I believe the philosophy itself is flawed.  We cannot expect to combat the ignorance and violence expressed in acts such as the flag burning by ourselves using force to stop it.  Only by exposing these viewpoints as narrow-minded, dishonest, and harmful can we expect true change to occur.  Anyone will change what he or she says at the point of a gun, but it is only cowards who use violence to influence viewpoints.  It takes real courage to stand up for what is true and reject the use of force.  That is the real burning flag our society needs to confront and our rejection of violence and ignorance for non-aggression and truth will eventually bring the change we all seek.

Break the Silence as well issued a statement as to how the situation was handled:

Break the Silence was disappointed to learn that an LGBT pride flag was burned by a fellow Albion College student on October 18, 2010. We are especially appalled that this act was performed in the wake of the nationally publicized string of LGBT teen suicides as well as during the college’s Coming Out Week. The fact that the administration took no disciplinary action in response to this incident has caused Break the Silence to seriously question Albion’s commitment to the principles outlined in its Student Handbook and diversity statement, such as the following:

            Student Handbook, Chapter VI

            Diversity Statement:

            We seek therefore to foster an environment of mutual respect, acceptance, appreciation, and caring for all members of our community. To this end, Albion College condemns all forms of discrimination and harassment, while reaffirming our commitment to academic free speech. (78)

An act of hateful symbolic speech committed outside of an academic setting does not qualify as academic free speech. It does, however, qualify as an “act of intimidation” as described in the “Discriminatory Harassment” section of the Student Handbook:

            Discriminatory Harassment:

            The College will not tolerate any acts of intimidation, or any behaviors that demean, slur, or stereotype an individual or group on the basis of sexual orientation…these include oral and written remarks, illustrations, innuendos, and electronic messages or postings. (81)

Break the Silence notes that the Student Handbook does not explicitly cover symbolic speech in its Discriminatory Harassment policy. Flag burning is an act of symbolic speech which, through its violent and destructive nature, uses nonverbal means to “demean, slur or stereotype” the group associated with the flag. Symbolic speech is just as effective as “oral and written remarks,” etc., perhaps more so, at eliciting feelings of intimidation. 

Albion College students and alumni active on social networking sites will note that this incident has caused a great disturbance among the student body. Members of Break the Silence have stated that they feel distressed and unsafe as a result of the incident, which points to another section in the Student Handbook regarding “irresponsible student behavior”:       

            Prohibited actions include, but are not limited to…

            9a. Individual or group activity which results in disturbance or distress to others. (79)

The administration’s lack of response has resulted in a public outcry from the campus community and beyond.

Break the Silence believes that the administration of this college has departed from the core values in its Diversity Statement, neglected to effectively enforce its Discriminatory Harassment Policy and failed to take adequate punitive measures against acts deemed intolerable. This is the message that Albion will send to the current student body, alumni, potential recruits, and anyone who visits this campus with the impression that such incidents go unpunished. As the College has not publicly condemned the actions of the student who burned the pride flag, we are led to believe that Albion College is tacitly condoning them.


  1. Although I’m no libertarian, I believe student David Gentile has made several strong points. As a member of the LGBT community I too find the concept of “hate crime” deeply troubling, though that’s not what I wish to comment on here.

    What I’d like to remind Mr. Gentile of is his misapplication of the first amendment. The amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Which means that it is well within the rights of Albion College as a private college to discipline this student for this particular act without infringing upon his rights. That student should not be sent to jail for such an action, but his constitutional right to free speech would not be infringed upon via suspension, expulsion, or any other disciplinary procedure related to his status as a student at Albion.

  2. Thanks Neil for commenting.

    I do understand that as a private institution, Albion College holds the rights to punish a student for these kinds of action, and that the First Amendment would not apply directly. My point was not to say that the First Amendment would protect the students – I was merely alluding to it as it is an important facet of our American system and how it related to this issue.

    My main point is really what I stress at the end: force will not solve this problem. I feel that too often our society reaches for the gun to solve our problems, when the true issue lies in the hearts and minds of those who committed this act. We cannot expect to solve the problems of ignorance and violence with more violence. Open and honest discussion is what we need. Let people speak, and let people learn. For if we automatically cry “Punishment! Punishment!” what message are we really spreading? That violence cures violence? I say reserve such actions for only the most extreme cases. Let the forces of non-agressive debate and conversation cure us of ignorance and violence.

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