U. Maine Students React to Flag Burning Controversy · 09 November 2007

By Meghan Hayward
Filed under: Maine

If your professor offered extra-credit if you were to burn the American Flag or the U.S. Constitution or were arrested for defending free speech, would you? Rebekah McDade would not.

McDade, a second-year journalism and political science double-major at the University of Maine was offended when professor Paul Grosswiler made this claim in her history of communications class. McDade chose to drop the class immediately afterward.

“There is a lot of military in my family so the flag and the Constitution, while not illegal to burn either of them, are things that are really important to me,” McDade said. “My father was over in the Middle East, and those are things that my family has fought for, and it offends me to think that people would just burn it, especially for something as trivial as extra credit for a class.”

Grosswiler said his main point in using this reference was to emphasize the tremendous courage it took early American editors like William Lloyd Garrison to express ideas that threatened or took their lives.

“I try to present the idea that we have the First Amendment right to burn the flag in the context that they know it is not to be taken literally. It’s a mixture of seriousness and humor,” Grosswiler said.

McDade said when the issue first became public, she was uncomfortable.

“I don’t enjoy the position I am in, but I am trying to use it to learn how to be good to people when they are in uncomfortable situations in my future career,” McDade said.

McDade did not expect the issue to become so widely publicized. Earlier this week, she was contacted by NBC about a possible interview on the Today Show.

When the extra-credit claim was made, McDade said the class became silent and some questioned whether Grosswiler was serious.

Kathleen Dame, a first-year journalism major who is currently in the class, said while she was shocked at first and caught off guard. She believes that Grosswiler makes this claim to be used as a teaching tool to emphasize power of free speech. Dame said his intent was not to actually burn the flag.

Joe Carr, director of university relations, said that disciplinary action would not be taken against Grosswiler.

“Grosswiler has worked at the university since 1991 and is considered a veteran professor in the department of communication and journalism,” Carr said. “He is a well-respected member of the faculty.”

Elizabeth Glunt, a third-year English major, took the same class from Grosswiler in the previous year. Glunt said when the claim was made to her class, people laughed.

“I took it as a joke, and I believe most of the students took it as a joke as well,” Glunt said. “I think it was meant to spark discussion on free speech and what you can and cannot say.”

Grosswiler said he regrets that McDade did not talk to him after class.

“I try to create an open and approachable atmosphere from the very beginning,” Grosswiler said. “Another student who was concerned did talk to me after the first class, and today he shook my hand after our class discussion of these events.”

The incident was first made public when The Leadership Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia, issued a press release detailing the classroom discussion.

Morton Blackwell founded The Leadership Institute in 1970. According to the organization’s Web site, its mission is to identify, recruit, train and place conservatives in politics, government and the media.

The Leadership Institute sends field representatives to college republican groups on campuses. A field representative was at UMaine on Oct. 1 and asked if anyone was interested in starting a new group. McDade said that Students for Academic Freedom was something she had been interested in even before Grosswiler’s comments.

“This whole thing is not about him; he was used as my example when I was talking to The Leadership Institute as to why it was so important to start a group like this on campus,” McDade said.

According to McDade, the group’s initial goal would be to convince UMaine to enact a “Student Bill of Rights.”

Both the president and vice president for the General Student Senate at UMaine are in favor of the idea.

“The Student Bill of Rights is an idea that’s been tossed around since September,” William Pomerleau, General Student Senate president said. “I am in favor, as I believe SG would be, in instituting a bill of rights like this. The powers and responsibilities it delegates will take time and compromise. I don’t think we should be doing this because a professor was attempting to incite debate about free speech. I think we should do it because it’s a wise and responsible idea on our campus.”

Grosswiler feels the entire incident will extend the goal of educating people about their First Amendment rights to the widest possible audiences.

“Now, a discussion of the meaning of free expression is being circulated far beyond the classroom, throughout cyberspace and in many media outlets,” Grosswiler said.