COLLEGE PARK -- For 17 years, the University of Maryland has sponsored a rape-awareness event in which hundreds of T-shirts decorated by sexual assault victims and their supporters are hung along clotheslines on campus.
But university lawyers learned that some students were writing the names of their alleged assailants on the shirts -- and to avoid possible lawsuits, officials have banned participants in next week's event from naming the accused.
In response, some students are protesting what they say is censorship.
"I'm outraged by it, and I think many students are as well," said undergraduate Maxine Norcross, who decorated a T-shirt last year with the first and last name of a person she said had committed a sexual assault. "It's a blatant act of censorship. It further silences victims."
The presidents of 20 university fraternity chapters have signed letters protesting the ban, which became known this week, said A.J. Arrese, a member of the Intrafraternity Council's executive committee. Campus sororities also have embarked on a petition drive, he said.
Mollie Monahan, the university's sexual assault prevention coordinator, said she was "amazed to see such a dramatic response" from students.
She and other staff members of the university's health office -- which sponsors the so-called "Clothesline Project" -- have been instructed not to comment about their personal feelings about the ban until they meet with university counsel Monday, officials said.
Linda Clement, UM's vice president of student affairs, emphasized that the campus would not seek to curtail individual student speech on campus, even potentially slanderous speech. But she said that as a formal sponsor of the event, the college had to consider its potential liability to people who might claim they were falsely accused.
"It would be different if an individual were going to write something on a shirt and put something up individually," Clement said. "Then it would be free speech. But if it is an office sponsoring an event, I think we have to adhere to the law."
David Rocah, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the university's response is understandable.
"Unless they were trying to censor the students' own speech, I can see why they would want to disassociate themselves from speech where they could potentially be viewed as the publisher," he said.
In defamation cases, courts can hold the author and the publisher liable for false statements that injure a person's reputation. Because the university officially endorses the clothesline project -- and provides staff, marketing and other support -- it might legally be considered a publisher, Rocah said.
That argument provided scant comfort this week to some students, who said they felt betrayed by the administration, which has taken steps in recent years to make sexual assault victims feel more comfortable reporting their experiences.
"The general consensus is we feel the university is protecting perpetrators rather than victims," said Angela Boos, a junior.
Norcross vowed that the banned shirts from this and previous years would be hung on campus. "I don't know exactly what we're doing, but these shirts will be displayed somehow."
Some students said they suspect the reason the university has taken action this year is because at last semester's clothesline event, a shirt was hung accusing a prominent former athlete.
University officials said they sought legal advice last semester after someone complained. "The university's position is not influenced by any one individual," said spokesman Millree Williams.
In the basement of the Stamp Student Union yesterday, tables were laid out with paint, markers and old T-shirts for students to come in and decorate for hanging.
Affixed to a painter's easel was a note reading: "For legal reasons, the University Health Center has decided that no shirt will be hung if it contains both first and last names of perpetrators and/or specifically identifying information."
Hanging from a clothesline on the other side of the room were shirts designed this week, several with messages aimed not at alleged perpetrators of sex crimes, but at campus administrators.
A white shirt read: "University Health Center administration = Office of the Perpetrator Advocate."
Other shirts contained victims' testimonials. "For a year, I thought it was all in my head," read one. "Then I saw you again and it was real. I said NO, I refused, then I passed out. But I woke up, and it was real."
Inspired by the AIDS quilt, the clothesline project was founded by an artist in Cape Cod in 1990. Since then, the grass-roots movement has spread to 41 states and five countries, according to clotheslineproject.org.