BY LEAH WILLINGHAM '17
Hampshire College became the site of protest by outraged veterans and community members this weekend when school officials decided to remove the American flag from the flagpole after a student reportedly stole and burned it.
The flag was stolen sometime on the evening of Nov. 10, or early on the morning on Nov. 11, after it was placed at half-mast in “reaction to the toxic tone of the monthslong election,” the College said in a statement.
On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, a flag was raised to full staff again, before being moved back to the half-staff position the next day. This "was meant as an expression of grief over the violent deaths being suffered in this country and globally, including the many U.S. service members who have lost their lives," Hampshire College President Jonathan Lash later told CNN.
Within a week, however, Lash sent an email to students announcing that the flag was to be taken down altogether.
On Sunday, 400 protesters chanting “raise our flag” gathered at the Hampshire College to demand the flag be replaced. By the end of the week, the flag was flying again, but not before the incident ignited a heated debate about flag burning, freedom of speech and college’s access to federal funding.
In a tweet on Nov. 29, President-Elect Donald Trump said that nobody should be able to burn the American flag. “If they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” he wrote.
Flag burning is protected by the First Amendment of the United States. This was decided by the Supreme Court in 1989 when a flag was burned to protest the policies of President Ronald Reagan outside the Republican National Convention. The high court ruled that flag burning was a form of “symbolic speech” under the Constitution, and therefore protected.
At Mount Holyoke, Michelle Wellman ’19 said she believes flag burning should be protected as a form of speech, but that it might not be the most effective form of protest. In other words, the fact that the incident received so much backlash may have distracted from any political meaning intended by it, Wellman said.
“There should be much better ways to protest,” Wellman said. “However, no one should be condemned for [burning a flag] because it is a right protected by the First Amendment and no matter how inappropriate it may seem that absolutely should not be changed.”
Despite that, Wellman said she understands how veterans might be offended by what happened.
“While it does seem like the symbolic nature of the burning of the flag does correspond well to the situation at hand, it still might not have been the most appropriate thing to do.”
A conservative Hampshire student, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of the “bully culture” at Hampshire College toward students with conservative opinions, said in an article in the Daily Wire that after this incident, he or she “truly hopes that the majority of students have immense respect for the symbol of the flag.”
“The American flag stands for civil liberties and the equal freedoms that every American enjoys in our present day. It must not be misconstrued as a symbol of oppression, PERIOD,” the student wrote. “The United States was founded upon the revolutionary principle that ‘All men are created equal’ and that there are basic human rights that every person has access to.”
Sasha Braverman ’18 confronted this idea when she reflected that protesters might not be aware of all the contradictions the flag represents for some Americans.
“What that flag represents to people can be a very different,” Braverman said. “And while I can see why veterans are angry, it’s more of an issue of nationalism than the fact that people died for this country, which of course is a big deal. It’s about the fact that some people were never welcome in this country to begin with, and the fact that what people die for, those rights, don’t extend to everyone. That’s something to be upset about.”
Following the flag removal, a group created a petition advocating that Hampshire lose federal funding until they reinstate the flag.
"They have chosen to step away from our country in a very bold and clear statement," the petition reads. "As such they should not receive support from the country they no longer are choosing to support."
The petition, which on Friday, when the flag was reinstated, had 5,291 of the 100,000 signatures needed by Dec. 25 to get a response from the White House, asks federal officials to "work immediately to recind (sic) and freeze all federal funding from Hampshire Collge (sic)."
According data from National Center for Education Statistics and MassLive, Hampshire students received a total of $6.7 million in federal aid for the 2014-15 school year.