UMass Amherst student is asked to remove vulgar sign, prompting free speech questions
The University of Massachusetts Amherst is grappling with issues of free speech, profanity, and countering hate after a student was asked to remove a sign from her dorm window that used derogatory language to tell Nazis they aren’t welcome on campus.
UMass Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski acknowledged that an email from a residence director to the student, Nichole Parsons, was “poorly worded” and said Parsons had the right to keep the sign up.
Parsons, a junior studying nutrition, posted the sign using a vulgarity along with “Nazis You Are Not Welcome Here” on December 14. She said it was a response to a swastika that was drawn on a “Happy Hanukkah” sign a Jewish resident assistant had hung near her dorm.
“I figured the person responsible would likely walk by my dorm and see it,” Parsons said. “UMass administration has had abysmal response at best to the rising number of hate crimes on campus, so I thought someone should be publicly condemning these actions.”
While it’s not known if the perpetrator saw it, Parsons said staff members did. And on December 18, she was asked to remove the sign.
When she didn’t, Parsons said she received an e-mail from Eddie Papazoni, who serves as one of the school’s residence directors. In the e-mail, which Parsons provided to the Globe, Papazoni conceded that the sign was protected by freedom of speech but asked Parsons to remove it.
“While Residence Education cannot force you... to take the sign down,” Papazoni wrote, “I am asking that you... take the sign down so that all students can be a part of an inclusive residential experience, as well as having a respectful environment to be a part of here on our campus.”
Papazoni did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Parsons posted a photo of the e-mail on social media and said the story spread quickly.
“I never thought that my message was controversial so this response from the campus shocked me,” Parsons said. “Since going viral, I’ve received overwhelming support from students, faculty, and complete strangers.”
The UMass administration also responded to the controversy, but with a mixed message.
In an e-mail to the Globe, Blaguszewski, the spokesperson for UMass Amherst, called the note Parsons received from the residence director “poorly worded.”
“UMass Amherst emphatically rejects Nazis, and any other hate group, a view expressed in the students’ sign,” Blaguszewski. “However, we are sensitive to the use of profanity, which some may find inappropriate. The university respects the students’ right to display the sign and it may remain up.”
Parsons said she eventually took the sign down because her roommate felt uncomfortable with the attention it drew. Parson also said she has since moved off campus.
“I had decided to move off campus before [this happened], but this situation makes me glad I did,” Parsons said.