Morgan Patten is a graduate student in the Brooklyn College art department. Following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israeli civilians, Patten hung two signs on the door of her personal on-campus art studio. One sign read “Free Palestine,” the other “Zionism is fascism.” The signs stayed up for more than a month until the school held an event called “Open Studios,” where the public was invited to view students’ art projects and studio spaces. During the event, campus police received an anonymous complaint about the signs, and two officers arrived to order Patten to take them down.
According to a legal letter sent to Brooklyn College by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a First Amendment nonprofit, the police claimed that the signs violated school policy against affixing any signs or posters to doors. While that rule alone is an acceptable “time, place, and manner” restriction on student speech, the school’s obvious viewpoint discrimination is causing constitutional concerns.
While Patten was forced to take down her signs, numerous other doors in the same building were covered with postings—including stickers, posters, flyers, and even top-to-bottom wrapping paper. Many of these decorations also included explicitly political content, such as a poster detailing “How To Be An Ally To Indigenous Peoples” and a sticker from the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group. But only Patten’s posters were targeted.
Making matters worse, on November 29, a professor informed Patten that the complaint against her had been sent to the school’s legal department. The college’s art department chair, Mona Hadler, later told Patten that she acknowledged Patten’s “right to free speech, but Hadler also said campus police have the authority to remove posters from doors.” According to FIRE’s letter, Hadler “did not explain why others’ door signs and artwork were able to remain up while Patten’s signs had to come down.”
On November 30, Patten was informed by the school’s legal department that her signs violated Brooklyn College’s posting policy, which prohibits hanging “any postings on college walls, entrances, grounds, etc.” The department also failed to explain why others’ postings were allowed to stay up.
As a public university, Brooklyn College is bound to abide by First Amendment standards in its rules for students and faculty. While “Brooklyn College’s policy prohibiting posters on doors appears to comply with this principle on its face,” FIRE’s letter reads, the policy “runs afoul of the First Amendment when selectively enforced based on the content and message of the poster, as amply illustrated by Brooklyn College’s demand that Patten remove her signs, apparently for no reason other than their message.”
When a school chooses to selectively enforce otherwise legally sound time, place, and manner restrictions to limit some political views but allow others to go unimpeded, it has violated the First Amendment. Even when speech is controversial, public colleges can’t pick and choose what expression is subject to school policies.