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Judge Rules For Students Who Put Banners Out Dormitory Windows

December 3, 1986

BOSTON (AP) _ Boston University officials violated state law and students’ rights to free speech by removing anti-apartheid banners from dormitory windows and fire escapes, a judge has ruled.

″Nowhere in our society is the protection of the free flow of ideas more important than in the university community, the quintessential ’marketplace of ideas,‴ Probate Judge Haskell C. Freedman in Cambridge wrote Tuesday.

″Within the university, student dormitories play an important role for students’ exercise of their freedom of expression, providing students with the only area reserved exclusively for their personal use. Such use includes the students’ rights of free speech.″

Freedman, ruling two months after the trial of a lawsuit by four students, also barred the university from removing signs inside or outside dorm windows, from threatening or disciplining students for hanging the signs, and from entering dormitory rooms to confiscate signs.

He said the school’s action violated the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act.

The university has not decided whether to appeal, said provost John Westling. ″The decision appears to raise serious questions. For example, does the order contemplate in the name of freedom of expression the right to display whatever anyone wishes in the dormitories of Boston University, for example posters that contain ethnic or racial slurs or pictures the members of the community at large would find offensive?″

The university argued that resident students were bound by a ″banner policy″ banning the hanging of objects from windows, fire escapes, doors or any other part of the dorm.

The school contended enforcement was casual and low-key, but the judge noted that enforcement against the four students was different, with university agents often entering student rooms without their knowledge.

Freedman noted that the university allowed a broad variety of signs in dorms about athletic teams, blood drives, student activities, musical groups and even traffic signs, without action under the banner policy.

″In a moral society,″ he wrote, ″the issues of ‘divestment’ and ‘apartheid’ are entitled to priority in a scale of values over the importance of student elections and student support of athletic programs.″

Yosef I. Abramowitz, one of the plaintiffs, said the decision ″affirmed that (President) John Silber is not above the law and no student is below it, not even at BU. It’s a sweeping victory and we’re all very happy.″

Abramowitz, a senior majoring in Jewish public policy, said he hung a succession of five banners from his fire escape, each with the single word ″Divest,″ as an anti-apartheid protest. University workers tore down each one after he declined to do so. Four days after the first banner went up, he said, he was ordered expelled from the residence system and threatened with ″more serious disciplinary action.″

Jeffrey Weaver put up an American flag, a Marine recruiting poster and a sign saying ″In Solidarity With Yosef.″ He said he was ordered to remove them and later was ordered evicted by a dormitory supervisor.

Anthony Bedard and George Lundskow, the other two plaintiffs, reported similar experiences.

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