LSU Memorial Tower campus

The Memorial Tower on LSU's campus.

LSU students this month are calling on university administrators to put a stop to activities that they say are promoting offensive rhetoric toward minorities and fostering a hostile environment on campus. But students at the center of the controversy say they are exercising their First Amendment rights. 

It's the latest in a nationwide showdown over the limits of freedom of speech on college campuses, which are often touted as safe spaces for young adults to come together and share differences of opinions. 

 

Currently, student equality organizations are rallying around two separate issues. The first is the return of inflammatory banners draped outside of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house, which in the past has made jokes about minorities and multiple references to shooting victims.

The second is the scheduled visit of conservative activist and professional provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who is visiting LSU to discuss freedom of speech issues on what he has dubbed the "Dangerous F***ot Tour."

Backed into an uncomfortable corner, university officials said they won't infringe on students' right to free speech, but that they don't endorse the activities. 

"LSU is committed to balancing our students' right to free speech with the cultivation of a safe living and learning environment," Dean of Students Mari Fuentes-Martin said in a statement.

Yiannopoulos, an editor for right-wing news website Breitbart News, was invited by LSU Students for Trump, to speak at the Union Theater on Wednesday. His tour has already sparked heated protests at other college campuses, like DePaul University, where protesters rushed the stage, and has been canceled on other campuses, like the University of Central Florida in Orlando, where Yiannopoulos, an openly gay man, was expected to give critical remarks about homosexuality and Islam. 

Yiannopoulos was famously banned from Twitter for online harassment of black "Saturday Night Live" actress Leslie Jones, calling her a "black dude" and "barely literate." He also encouraged other social media users to take aim at her. 

"He uses inflammatory language and is misogynistic and racist and homophobic and all kinds of things, so we don't want someone like that speaking at LSU," said LSU senior Courtney Murr, president of Spectrum, an LGBT student group. "We think it can make a lot of people around here very uncomfortable, and if the university is supporting this person who uses hate speech as part of his comedy, then the university is OK with students being uncomfortable."  

David Walters with Students for Trump, which organized the tour visit, said he appreciates Yiannopoulos's stand against politically correctness. 

"He's outspoken and not afraid to hold back his word. He stays informed and he is a (Donald) Trump supporter," Walters said. "My main thing is that freedom of speech is a two-way road." 

Ernie Ballard, an LSU spokesman said the university embraces "open dialogue on all sides of an issue," but added "Providing a venue for the students to hold their event is not an endorsement by the university." As of Monday, 348 tickets had been sold for the event which has a capacity of 1,100.

Murr said students are organizing a protest nearby the event, in the form of a block party, where people "can promote diversity and inclusion, and talk about why we don't want a person like this on our campus." Protesters initially tried to buy out all of the tickets for the event to prevent others from attending, but were unsuccessful because Walters had set up a fake event website that was disseminating the protesters fake tickets. 

Student groups are also lobbying school administrators to take a stronger stand against game day banners hung by DKE fraternity. Several students interviewed for this story said they would like administrators to pre-approve the fraternity's banners. The most recent banner, hung during LSU's home opener where thousands of tailgaters were on campus, read "Oh say can you see (Colin) Kaepernick sits when he pees." The sign is an apparent criticism of the NFL player who has taken to kneeling during the national anthem as a protest against social injustices toward African-Americans.

"It seems to be extremely misogynistic," said Jakeyla Chavis, an LSU junior who helped pen a letter to administrators asking for intervention. "Anytime a man does anything unfavorable to other men they're compared to women. Women are the unfavorable sex. And a lot of people are really disrespected by it." 

In their game day banners, DKE has in previous years made light of shooting victims at Kent State and at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater. They issued an apology after their Kent State banner which referenced the 1970 deaths of four Kent State student protesters shot by the Ohio National Guard. The sign read "Getting Massacred is Nothing New to Kent St." They've also made jokes about drugs, AIDS, and gay people including Michael Sam, the NFL's first openly gay football player.

DKE national officials did not return phone calls or emails for this story. 

Montarious Howard, president of the LSU chapter of the NAACP, said the signs as a whole have sent a bad message about what LSU tolerates. He also said it fosters hostility toward the groups of people being marginalized by the so-called jokes. 

"If we're not looking to be a diverse university, we're failing to be the flagship university of the state," he said. He said that he understands the fraternity has a right to freedom of speech, but "when it fosters a hostile environment for students, freedom of speech goes out the window." 

In recent years, students, emboldened by social media, have been quicker and more assertive in demanding administrative intervention about offensive rhetoric. Last year, student protests exploded across the nation's campuses demanding that administrators take stronger stances against racism on campus. They rallied for some administrators to be fired or resign for not being vocal enough in defending marginalized students, and in some cases they were successful.

"There's a resurgence of student activism, students feel very empowered to speak out," said Ari Cohn, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "That in itself is a very good thing." 

But Cohn cautioned that students and administrators can't stop speech or expression that they disagree with, and the U.S. Supreme Court has time and again affirmed that a university's own code of conduct for students cannot supersede the First Amendment.

The line is crossed beyond free speech, Cohn said, when the rhetoric becomes a threat or a means of intimidation.

But in the case of the DKE sign, he noted Kaepernick himself is making a high-profile political statement, which in turn opens him up to satire and political commentary. 

"Nothing about that sign renders it unprotected by the First Amendment," he said. 

Ballard said the university's approach is to make the incidents teachable moments. 

"The University's goal is to educate students on the responsible use of their rights, which makes them better citizens," he said. "Each disagreement among students is opportunity to teach all sides of the argument about respectful discourse." 

Editor's note: This story was changed on Sept. 20 to reflect that a university code of conduct cannot supersede the First Amendment. The original version of the story erroneously inverted the comment. We regret the error. 

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.