With conflict and controversy heating up around the Gaza Strip, the issue of whether tearing down flags constitutes free speech has become important on the Knox campus.
In the middle of Spring Term last year, someone tore down the flag of Palestine from the International Club board. Junior Bisan Battrawi, a Palestinian student and Junior at Large of International Club, said, “The first time it happened, I was very hurt. Especially being an international student in this country, you expect people to be welcoming.”
In response to the first incident, Battrawi spoke with President Roger Taylor and several deans, who were “very supportive.” Battrawi decided to print out 250 copies of her flag with a small note to the person or group responsible and put them around the Knox campus.
On the first day of Winter Term, the flag posted on the International Club board was once again torn down.
“The second time it happened…I honestly was not as hurt as the first time, because once you experience something like that earlier, you become ‘used to it.’ I still, however, printed out more copies with another message to the person [or] group and distributed the flag around campus.
The diversity committee also helped me this time by making the petition against vandalism.”
Battrawi approached Student Senate President senior Elaine Wilson after these incidents, and they plan to have a meeting this week “to discuss the issue, clear up some misinformation, and learn more from [Battrawi] personally.”
At the last Student Senate meeting, Senate President Wilson issued this statement: “I’m sure most of us are in agreement that the tearing down of flags or flyers for campus events or organizations is in many ways vandalism and disrespect of ideology. We therefore discuss our meeting this week that it is not the Senate’s place to act as disciplinarian. As much as I or we may disagree [with tearing down] a student’s flag or flyer…it is ultimately, a freedom of speech.”
Dean of Students Xavier Romano echoed Senate’s statement that the school can’t “put glass over everything,” referring to the glass protecting the boards of organizations prone to vandalism, and the solution is not “administrative” but rather “student-to-student.” However, he did not agree that the tearing of flags and posters is freedom of speech. Battrawi also disagreed with that assertion.
“This action should not be justified by any means because when you do this you are actually attacking the freedom of speech…if you do not agree on what the message says, you should go ahead and spread your own message and try to convince others why the other message is wrong, or why you do not disagree with it, rather than attacking the [original] message,” she said in an email. She also called the attacks a “very weak act.”
“In my instance, I was not trying to spread any message…Just like the rest of the executive members, I was only representing my country in the International Club. I just do not understand what is the person [or] group disagreeing with. Is it that my name is Bisan Battrawi? Or is it that I am the Junior at Large in the I-club? Or is it that I am from Palestine?”
Romano said the incident “speaks to a larger issue on campus.” There have been frequent occurrences of vandalism on many boards of campus organizations, including Greek groups, the Knox Republicans, SASS, Union Board, and others.
Battrawi noted that the vandalism has a definite impact on Knox’s concept of diversity.
“How welcoming is it for an international student to be treated in that way? …. As a sort of respect to people from other nationalities and ethnic groups, this should not be accepted by anyone; it is a disgrace for the college, which is considered a diverse college. Diversity is not only numbers; it is also understanding and respecting these numbers,” she said.
Battrawi also offered a solution to the vandalism: starting a dialogue between the two parties so that they could find an alternative to tearing them down.
“For those who did it to me, I am just very disappointed by this mentality; I encourage you to come talk to me if you ever have a problem with my name or my position in the I-club or my country or anything beyond that…People should carry peaceful conversations and discussions if they have points of disagreement; violent attacks are not going to do any good for either side.”
Finally, Battrawi expressed thanks to those who have supported her effort to solve this issue, including the Diversity Committee, various faculty and students, and TKS, as well as hope that any student with an issue to bring up will approach it in a mature way in the future.
“I would like to address the person or group who did this and tell them to talk to me if they think that there’s a problem with this issue, I would love to hear their point of view. And I hope that this will never happen again to anyone; as we are in the country of ‘freedom of speech’ and no one should be stopped from spreading their message or representing their ethnicity or nationality,” she said.