As part of a long-standing tradition, freshman art students at Thailand’s premier Chulalongkorn University designed a mural for the graduating class. Unfortunately, in an act of poor taste and lack of forethought, the students’ display depicted Adolf Hitler giving a Nazi salute surrounded by superheroes such as Batman and Captain America. Hitler, painted in gray scale, stood out among the vibrantly-colored classic superheroes. The word “Congratulations” was written in white above the characters.
Dean of the University’s art school, Suppakorn Distapundhu, stated “[we] would like to formally express our sincere apology for our students’ ‘Superhero’ mural. I can assure you we are taking this matter very seriously.”
After summoning the students for an explanation, Disatapundhu told the press that the vision behind the mural was to show the coexistence of good and evil people in the world. “Hitler was supposed to serve as a conceptual paradox to the superheroes,” Distapundhu said. “This kind of thoughtless display will not happen again.”
Distapundhu further stated that the students did not realize Hitler’s image would offend anyone.
The banner was displayed in front of the art building for two days before public criticism resulted in its removal. After the debacle, photos posted online showed graduating seniors in their graduation robes, mimicking Hitler’s salute.
The display has sparked international criticism regarding the lack of global knowledge the students at the top university of higher education in Thailand are taught. The curriculum at the University focuses heavily on Thai history, rather than world history and events like the Holocaust.
This curriculum seems to contradict the goals and policies of Chulalongkorn University which state that the University’s aim is “to graduate quality persons who can cooperate and compete on an equal levels [sic] in national and world arenas.” It has been argued that in order for the students of Chulalongkorn University to achieve this goal, the curriculum should have a larger focus on world history. This would give its students a more diverse background on other cultures and events that shaped the world so as to avoid cultural misunderstandings and instances such as this banner.
Although this occurred in Thailand, the banner raises an interesting question for student speech in the United States. Specifically, what First Amendment rights do college students have when exercising free speech on campus? The Supreme Court answered this question in the case Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169 (1972). In that case, students from Central Connecticut State College filed an action against the school after their student group was denied recognition as an official student organization. The Supreme Court held that “it is perfectly proper for a college administration to prohibit activities by students or by a group of students which infringe reasonable campus rules, interrupt classes, or substantially interfere with the opportunity of other students to obtain an education.” Under this decision, if Chulalongkorn University were a public university in the United States, the school would most likely have requested that the mural be removed because of the overwhelming opposition to the banner as well as the media coverage that would engulf the school as a result of its controversial nature and would undoubtedly interfere with class instruction. Therefore, under Healy, these reasons would be permissible grounds for limiting college students’ free speech and would not be considered a violation of the First Amendment.
Recently, in 2010, the Supreme Court reemphasized a university’s role regarding First Amendment right violations in the case Christian Legal Soc’y Chapter of the Univ. of Cal. v. Martinez, 130 S. Ct. 2971. There, the Supreme Court stated that, “First Amendment rights must be analyzed in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.” The Supreme Court went on to say that the Court is the “final arbiter” in deciding, “whether a public university has exceeded constitutional constraints.” However, the Court also stated that, “judges lack the on-the-ground expertise and experience of school administrators.” For this reason, the Supreme Court “cautioned” the lower courts “to resist ‘substitut[ing] their own notions of sound educational policy for those of…school authorities.” Thereby advising the courts to provide a greater deference to school administrators when faced with on campus constitutional issues. Based on the decisions and reasoning, it can be inferred that if Chulalongkorn University were a public university in the United States, the school administrators would have permissibly had the discretion to remove the offensive banner without violation to the First Amendment rights of the students.
A special thank you to Cathryn Ryan, an intern at Cullen and Dykman LLP, for her assistance with this blog post.