Campus protest stirs controversy, leads to learning moments


Photo credit/ Autumn Granza

A student protester displays a sign during the protest in support of Ferguson.

Autumn Granza and Brigid Edmunds

Editor’s Note: We should note that a staff member at The Wood Word was one of the protestors at yesterday’s event. This fact was not known by the editorial management of The Wood Word prior to initiating coverage, nor was that staff member who protested part of the editorial process of covering, editing and posting this story.

A protest to stand in solidarity with the Ferguson community organized by a dozen Marywood University students has stirred controversy and debate about first amendment rights, respect for the American flag, and the purpose of peaceful assembly.

On Dec. 2, Marywood University students organized the “sit-in” in the Rotunda of the Liberal Arts Center. The protest, which was organized by junior music therapy major Abaigael McMahon, included almost a dozen students lying on the ground of the Rotunda between 2:20 and 3 p.m.

One protester hung an American flag upside down and with writing on it which read, “There is no justice on stolen land.” It also included the name Michael Brown as well as a hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

Because threats have been made against the student protester who hung the flag, The Wood Word has decided not to name the student in order to protect against potential harm.

The Wood Word posted on Facebook a series of pictures of the protest, including one of the flag, which have stirred heated conversation among Marywood students, faculty, alumni, and members of the local community.

Juneann Grecco, public relations director for the university, commented on The Wood Word’s initial Facebook post and later issued an official statement on the Marywood University Facebook page that read:

“Our official response to images of a United States flag that was written on and hung in our Rotunda: The flag was part of a student protest that was not sanctioned or supported by Marywood University. As soon as the presence of the flag was brought to the attention of University administration, the students were asked to take the flag down and complied immediately without incident. While Marywood University fully supports our students’ first amendment rights to freedom of speech, peaceable assembly, and freedom of the press, pictures depicting the desecration of the United States flag in no way represent the views, core values, or mission of Marywood University.”

Marywood alums, along with members of the local community, reacted via social media to the desecration of the flag.

Some alums, like Kevin Blackletter, said they were upset and offended by the desecration of the flag.

“Embarrassed to say I am an alumni of this University, please refrain from ever requesting a donation from me [sic],” said Blackletter in a comment on the original Wood Word Facebook post.

Others, including current student Erica Nealon, acknowledged the students’ right to demonstrate, but questioned their methods. “The students have a right to protest. 1st amendment rights!” said Nealon. “But I think what they did with the flag took it too far. I am a Marywood student. It is silly of you to generalize all of Marywood University in your comments when only 12 students took part in this protest.”

Ann Williams, director of Alumni Engagement, reinforced the fact that the demonstration was not a Marywood sanctioned event.

“The protest was not a Marywood sponsored event. When the students were approached to remove the flag, they did so without protest,” said Williams. “The Alumni Association believes in Marywood’s mission and core values and respects them.”

This afternoon, Sr. Anne Munley, I.H.M., Ph.D., president of Marywood, also offered an official statement:

“As stated yesterday, Marywood University understands our students’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, peaceable assembly, and freedom of the press, but we abhor the desecration of the United States flag. Such an action is inconsistent with the mission of Marywood and our core values. As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that the circumstances of yesterday have created the opportunity for education and dialogue. Due to the nature of the events, disagreements are expected; it is our hope, however, that this will be a learning experience for our students and for all in the broader community who wish to engage in respectful dialogue.”

McMahon, organizer of the protest, insisted that it was not her intention to offend any person in the Marywood or surrounding community.

“I do not support the desecration of the flag or the way it was hung. The protest [was] not meant to be offensive to anyone. I support the people who served this country and the ones who continue to serve. I apologize on behalf of the student who hung the flag,” said McMahon.

On Wednesday afternoon, students were invited via email by Ann Boland-Chase, vice president for Enrollment Services and Student Success, to “engage in peaceful and respectful dialogue regarding the events of yesterday” in the Swartz Center for Spiritual Life.

The event, which lasted from 12:30 p.m. until approximately 2:30 p.m., brought more than 50 students moving in and out of the room during the two hour block. Among the attendees were student protestors as well as members of the Student Veteran Alliance.

“It’s the only way to move forward,” said Christopher Smith, president of the Student Veteran Alliance (SVA), a student veteran, and senior nutrition and dietetics major who attended the dialogue session. “We could have stayed angry and just kept going with it or we could have come together like we did, sat down and discussed it and hashed out the problems in an adult manner.”

Smith, who engaged in dialogue with protesters and other members of the Marywood community during the session, said he was glad to have the opportunity to hear other points of view.

“The protesters didn’t understand the repercussions of their actions, and a lot of people were angry, and both sides had every right to do what they did. I am glad that we can sit down and talk about it and move forward from there without having an altercation of any type,” said Smith.

Kirby Gordon, senior clinical psychology and criminal justice major and one of the protesters, agreed.

“[Other protestors and I] feel apologetic of everyone being offended by what happened and the distress that everybody felt,” said Gordon. “That was not in any way shape or form our intent. We did not want anyone to be angry or upset about the flag. We wanted people to see that we are a country in distress, and that Ferguson is just one incident out of many and is not an isolated incident.”

Shortly after the conversations concluded, protesters along with members of the SVA, offered a joint statement to the press, which reflected their shared thoughts.

As reported by The Wood Word on Sept. 21, Marywood’s SVA was recently awarded a grant from the National Organization of Veteran Advocates (NOVA), Student Veterans of America, and The Home Depot Foundation, through the VetCenter Initiative. Grant funds have helped to construct and establish veteran-specific resource centers on campuses all across the country.

Through the grant, Marywood established and recently dedicated the Veterans Resource Center, a space on campus that now accommodates a number of services including The Office of Military and Veteran Services and the Renewal-Veteran Education and Transition Services (R-VETS) resources, along with Student Veteran Alliance (SVA). There are currently more than 100 active military, veterans and family members attending Marywood.

The SVA also posted an official comment to its own Facebook page earlier this evening.
“Yesterday afternoon a few students of the Marywood Community exercised their right to protest,” the statement read. “As part of the protest, a defaced American flag was displayed. We know many of you are outraged and we understand. We are saddened that the actions of our fellow students affected so many throughout the community. Although we all may have conflicting opinions on how these students protested, at the end of the day, part of our job as military personnel is to fight for their First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful protest.

“While we support their right to demonstrate peacefully, we do not support the way in which they went about it, namely the defacement of the flag. While it is permissible under the First Amendment, we feel it is disrespectful and offensive to all of us who were willing to give our lives in order to ensure that these students had that right to a peaceful protest. The purpose of the protest was diverted once the focus shifted from the matters at hand to the focus of defacement of the flag.

“To those of you who are angered by this, we want to remind all of you of the support that Marywood has shown to veterans on our campus and in our community. This year Marywood hosted both our 3rd Annual Flags for the Fallen Display and our 3rd Annual Veteran’s Appreciation Luncheon, as well as the grand opening of the Veterans Resource Center,” the statement continued.

“We are the only campus in our area to have such a facility and the Student Veteran Alliance is very grateful to Marywood for their support and generosity,” the SVA comment concluded. “Please know that the Student Veteran Alliance officers had an opportunity to sit down with fellow members of our student body today, including some members of the protest. It was a respectful conversation and gave both sides an opportunity to hear from the other. The student protesters acknowledged our perspective and sincerely apologized for any offense. It was not their intent and they now understand how it came across. It was a great opportunity to educate our non-veteran students on our views and we were grateful for the opportunity.”

Dr. Lia Palmiter, director of diversity, who helped guide this afternoon’s dialogue sessions, said that additional sessions for open dialogue among the campus community are being planned.

According to Dr. Amy Paciej-Woodruff, assistant vice president for Student Life, the students who protested will not face disciplinary action because their actions were not illegal.

Vincent Schultz and Patrick Kernan contributed to this report.