Speeches & Commentary

Statement on September 11 flag display

Dear Washington University community,

Yesterday, one of our students disrupted a display of flags placed on Mudd Field to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The student removed a number of flags from the display and placed them into trash bags. His actions were captured on video and shared on social media. When we became aware of this incident late yesterday, we issued a statement to the media, which you will find at the bottom of this message.

For such an incident to take place on September 11, a time of pain and reflection for so many, makes this situation especially difficult. Like so many Americans, the memories of that day in 2001 are still so vivid for me. I recall the fear and anxiety, the shock and horror, the agony and grief. I remember that sense of uncertainty as my wife and I struggled to make sense of all that was happening. And I remember, too, that sense of community as we gathered with our friends and family to reflect on this shared tragedy.

On anniversaries like the one we observed yesterday, these feelings are especially acute. I spent the morning walking with my daughter in Forest Park, where thousands of flags were planted to commemorate the lives lost on that day. My daughter was born eight years after the attacks, and I understand that that day resonates differently for us. What is memory for me is, for her, history. There should be space both for recalling the traumatic memories of that day and for considering its long-term historical implications.

I want to make it very clear that, as an institution, we find the actions of this student to be reprehensible. The removal of the flags impeded the ability of individuals to commemorate the lives lost on 9/11 and to process the trauma of that day. This act was seen as a personal affront by many, at WashU and beyond, and as an affront to the ideals of our institution. The 9/11 commemoration on Mudd Field was not just a memorial, it was also an act of speech. The free exchange of ideas is central to a vibrant university. It is a hallmark of our academic community, and it is imperative that everyone here is able to express their views in a respectful environment. Students have the right to express their viewpoints, but they also have the obligation to respect others’ expressions. 

We are taking appropriate steps to investigate this incident and will follow our standard protocols as we do so. Such steps often take time. As we move forward, we will also ensure that the student involved has access to campus resources that are regularly available to students as he navigates the consequences of his actions, both on campus and beyond. 

As a university that considers freedom of expression to be a cornerstone of our institution, it’s important for all of us to recognize that, even when we disagree, we are one community. We must find ways to have difficult conversations and listen to one another while acknowledging that among us there will be differing intellectual outlooks and emotional experiences. Moments like this are certainly challenging, but if we take the opportunity to try to understand different perspectives, we will ultimately become stronger for the experience. Free speech has empowered – and challenged – college campuses across the country for generations. There are many lessons to be learned from our shared history, and my hope is that this distressing incident will be another such opportunity for our community. Ultimately, we must put respect and dignity above all else, as these are the values that will carry us forward.

Thank you for your support as we deal with this difficult incident and work to support our students and our entire community during these tumultuous times.

Sincerely,

Chancellor Andrew D. Martin


WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY MEDIA STATEMENT
(RELEASED SEPTEMBER 11, 2021)

We were disappointed to learn about the disruption to the 9/11 display on Mudd Field. We condemn the interference with the expression of support by the College Republicans for the victims of the national tragedy that took place 20 years ago today. The actions surrounding this incident were not on behalf of the university or a university-sponsored organization. We value freedom of expression in all forms and will work to ensure that all students are able to express their points of view through appropriate channels without disrupting the rights of others to show support for causes they care about. This is a critical component of our core values and we are committed to facilitating free speech on our campus.