Student's response to Confederate flag touches off free speech dispute at Harvard

April 21, 1991|By Carol Stocker | Carol Stocker,Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- When she first saw the Confederate flag hanging from Brigit Kerrigan's dorm room window, Harvard junior Jacinda Townsend's heart started pumping, and her pace automatically quickened as she crossed the campus.

"Even though I know there's no one waiting for me with a rope, the sight of that flag is very frightening to me," the black student said. "It's a violent flag."

To Brigit Kerrigan, who grew up near Washington, D.C., the Confederate flag is a symbol of regional pride. To many on campus it has become a symbol of free speech. But to Ms. Townsend -- who notes that the Confederate flag is not flown in her Kentucky hometown -- the flag is a symbol of the Ku Klux Klan.

"The Klan is not big in my town, but it's there. And they do things," she said.

One day, after her family moved into an all-white neighborhood in Bowling Green, Ky., they found an ugly sofa dumped in their front yard. Ms. Townsend's aunt returned once from a trip to find burn marks suggesting a cross on her lawn. Other black families she knew found tacks in their mailboxes. Who did it? The Klan, everyone said.

And there was a shiver of fear in the air.

When Ms. Kerrigan refused to remove the Confederate flag after a request from her house master at Harvard's Kirkland House and a recriminatory house meeting with her fellow residents, the campus split between those offended by the pressure brought to bear against her and those who condemned her for insensitivity to black students like Ms. Townsend.

When one of Ms. Townsend's dorm mates at Cabot House, Tim McCormack of Maine, hung a Confederate flag in his window in solidarity with Ms. Kerrigan, window dressing proliferated. Some students in Ms. Townsend's complex strung rubber chickens in their windows. A student who had the room immediately above Mr. McCormack hung a placard in his window with an arrow pointing to the Stars and Bars and the comment "What a Fool!"

But it was Ms. Townsend's response last month that made the controversy a news story outside the Harvard campus.

"Angry and disgusted," the 19-year-old spray-painted the Nazi swastika on a white bedsheet and hung it out of her window.

Within 24 hours, the campus police were knocking on her door asking her to take it down. She refused.

The purpose of the display, she said, was to signal that the Confederate flag was a symbol of genocide to herself and many other blacks. "I wanted people to know what the Confederate flag really means. I don't see it so much as a part of free speech, but as a threat of violence."

The analogy seemed fuzzy at best to many, but Ms. Townsend had another rationale as well: to put up -- and keep up -- a symbol so offensive that it would force the university to ban her flag and the Confederate flags. In other words, to invite &r censorship.

Ms. Townsend says now that she had no idea at the time how painful the swastika was especially to Jewish students or that she might have be seen as singling out one minority for offense while trying to defend another.

"I haven't had that much experience in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I had never met a Jewish person before I came to Harvard. I just thought of the swastika as a symbol offensive to me and to everyone."

Ms. Townsend's act may have been thoughtless. But she pursued her tactic, nonetheless. She put a message on her answering machine that urged the dozens of offended callers: "If you're calling me to tell me to take my flag down, I hope you'll call Dean Fred Jewett and ask him to make me take my flag down."

It didn't work.

While Harvard President Derek Bok condemned the flags as "insensitive and unwise," he and the university were committed to the students' free speech right to display them. "As each day passed," Ms. Townsend said, "I was more and more appalled that the university didn't make me take it down."

Ms. Townsend, who wants to become a lawyer, is not an advocate of "unlimited free speech."

"I don't think the Nazis should have been allowed to march in Skokie," she said, referring to a famous Illinois march that was debated in the courts as a free speech issue.

There was a lot of discussion between representatives of Harvard/Radcliffe Hillel and the Black Student Association about her flag, she said, though she herself is not a member of the BSA.

After a week, Ms. Townsend took the sheet down at the request of the BSA, which said it threatened to strain relations between black and Jewish students. "It would be a real pity if that broke out since that wasn't the intent," she agreed.

Both women say to other people that they love the South, but their images of it are as different as their views of the rebel flag.

Ms. Kerrigan claims to be a Civil War buff; Ms. Townsend speaks of "the New South."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.