COLLEGE PARK -- Are nearly all male students at the University of Maryland "potential rapists"?
Women in a feminist art class here apparently believe so. About 10 of them plastered the campus with fliers last week listing the names of virtually every male student under the heading, "NOTICE: THESE MEN ARE POTENTIAL RAPISTS."
Their decision to walk the murky line between libel and free speech sent the campus into an uproar. Yesterday, reporters, photographers and TV crews flocked to the sprawling campus in search of outraged students on both sides of the issue.
University officials are trying to determine whether some members of the "Current Issues in Feminist Art" class or their teacher violated their codes of conduct, said Roland H. King, the university's spokesman.
The project began as a response to several sexual assaults on campus in the past year. To alert women to the pervasiveness of rape, the art students prepared fliers with names culled from the campus directory.
Everyone with an identifiably male name, such as Tom or Mohammed or John, ended up on an alphabetized list. The women also set up large posters containing all of the names on the grassy mall at the center of the campus, where masked women put on an anti-rape play. They call themselves the Women's Coalition for Change but have not revealed their names.
Mr. King said it is unclear whether teacher Josephine Withers was involved in the project, which was not listed on her outline for the course. She did not return phone calls yesterday.
The school administration considers the display "inappropriate" and an error in judgment, Mr. King said, but the case also raises thorny issues about free speech.
"It certainly touches on key First Amendment issues that colleges face all the time, which is the balancing of individual rights with the right of free speech," he said.
"One of the things that defines a college or university is that it's a forum where, more than in society at large, you can debate ideas. To do that, you have to include the people at the fringes as well as people at the center."
When the students attached names to their display, he said, they moved into a "very gray area."
Sophomore Matthew Nowlin, 20, an aerospace engineering student, briefly considered suing when he found his name on the "potential rapists" list, fearing that his character had been impugned.
It didn't take long for him to feel the ramifications of being included on the list. A woman who walked past him later that day looked at him with "fear in her eyes," he said.
Now, he just wants an apology from the lists' authors.
Yesterday, Mr. Nowlin helped organize a small rally on campus to talk about sexual assault. "I want to turn away from the anger this has caused and turn us back to the issue of violence on campus," he said.
The anger, however, is the point, said several women who strongly supported the display but said they were not involved in it.
Erin Lane, 22, a senior economics major, and several of her friends discussed the project outside the Food Co-op in the student center.
"A lot of people are very upset by it, but I think if a man was secure he wasn't a rapist, he wouldn't be threatened by this list," Ms. Lane said.
"I think it's admirable that men in this school have been saying the word 'rape' and are being angry at the same time," said Jessica True, 23, a freshman from Takoma Park.
"We're forced to accept the fact we're potential rape victims everyday," said Kelly Maron, 20, a sophomore from La Plata studying art and women's studies.