Art Student Fights for Free Speech After School Asks to Remove Pro-Palestine Signs

Morgan Patten’s signs reading “Zionism is Fascism” and “Free Palestine” (all images courtesy Morgan Patten)

In mid-October, amid Israel’s deadly ongoing bombardment of Gaza, first-year MFA student Morgan Patten taped two hand-painted signs to the door of her Brooklyn College studio. In red lettering, they spelled “Free Palestine” and “Zionism = Fascism.” The pair of posters went unmentioned until a November 18 open studios event, when two campus police officers told Patten to remove the signs, citing school policy. The student complied, but the incident left her with the sense that her voice had been suppressed.

Now, Patten and the legal clinic Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) are accusing Brooklyn College of violating freedom of speech protections, and demanding that the school enforce its sign policy in “a viewpoint-neutral manner” going forward.

As expressed in a December 6 letter to Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson, FIRE’s argument hinges on the fact that other doorways at the school are still decorated with artworks and flyers.

“Selectively enforcing a policy to censor disfavored views or content violates the First Amendment,” Jessie Appleby, an attorney with the organization, told Hyperallergic.

Patten did not rehang the posters on her door after the open studios incident, but over a week later, she received an email from a professor, reviewed by Hyperallergic, informing her that an unidentified person had “escalated” a complaint about her signs to the school’s legal department. The faculty member suggested that Patten meet with him and the head of the art department. That meeting, originally scheduled for December 6, was ultimately postponed and has yet to be rescheduled. 

Morgan Patter is an MFA student at Brooklyn College.

Patten contacted FIRE the next day. The next afternoon, the art department chair forwarded Patten an email from the legal department explaining the specific policy she’d allegedly broken: the “Campus Beautification Project” guidelines, launched in 2001 to mitigate “the excessive amount of flyers appearing on college walls, doors, and surfaces.” The school has not threatened Patten with disciplinary action.

FIRE’s letter, reviewed by Hyperallergic, includes multiple photographs of decorated doors at the school and characterizes the removal of Patten’s signs as a “view-based restriction” that violates the First Amendment.

A Brooklyn College spokesperson directed Hyperallergic to the school’s beautification rules. “Because the posters violated the policy, they were removed. Due to a recent uptick in postings outside of bulletin boards, the college is canvassing for wayward postings and will send a reminder to all students, staff, and faculty about the policy,” said the spokesperson.

Patten is currently searching for a lawyer and explained that she wants to secure legal representation before reposting her signs. “I do plan on fighting to put up pro-Palestine posters on my door,” Patten continued. “I stand by what I say.”

The campus free speech debate resurfaced last week after the Republican-led House Committee on Education and the Workforce called on the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University to testify on allegations of antisemitic speech on their campuses. The presidents’ answers cemented their commitment to allowing a wide breadth of expression — and ignited fury. UPenn President Liz Magill resigned on Saturday in the face of backlash to her response to a question asking whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would be allowed under her school’s rules.

Patten spoke to the ongoing equation of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, emphasizing that her call for a free Palestine is non-threatening.

“It’s simply calling for an end to the illegal occupation and genocide of the Palestinians currently happening right now,” the student continued. “If I can’t show my solidarity for Palestinians at my school, then I fear deeply for our academic institutions.”

Appleby said that as a public institution, Brooklyn College has an “obligation” to enforce its policies neutrally. “A desire to keep the peace or avoid contentious debates does not justify silencing student speech about controversial topics,” she said.

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