MARYLAND — Sexual assault victims participating in the Clothesline Project at the University of Maryland cannot write the names of alleged assailants on shirts they plan to hang around the campus, university officials said this week.
University officials, concerned that the names could spur a libel case, made the announcement a week before sponsoring the Oct. 11 rape-awareness event at the College Park campus. The name ban also applies to shirts made in the past that have first and last names written on them.
Event organizers and other participants have sharply criticized the ban.
“The university has no right to censor the survivors of these assaults,” said A.J. Arrese, vice president of membership development for the Interfraternity Council at Maryland. “We believe this is a freedom of speech issue. It’s an important part of the survivors’ healing process to able to make these T-shirts.”
Arrese, who helped hang the Clothesline shirts up the past two semesters, said he believes the university’s name ban is in response to two specific shirts, one of which names a current NFL player and another that names a former Maryland football player.
“We are afraid that the university might be sending out the message to the public that they are silencing victims,” Arrese said.
A university spokesman, calling the Clothesline Project a “worthwhile event,” said the school is not trying to silence victims.
“As a university sanctioned event, we didn’t want the names on the shirt,” said Millree Williams, a school spokesman. “We don’t want to be publishing names — we’re not in the publishing business.”
But campus groups assisting with the event urged the university to see the other side.
“First, this is a freedom of speech issue,” said Cortney Fisher, senior victim advocate in the Office of the Victim Advocate. “And second, this is a violation of Title IX which extends into the areas of gender inequality and gender discrimination.”
Fisher, who also is a lawyer, said that case law continues to protect victims’ rights to speak about sexual assaults and that a university cannot place a “gag order” to silence their stories.
The Clothesline Project, held twice a year, has been at Maryland for 17 years, Fisher said. About 10-15 new shirts are made each time and added to the shirts from past years, about 500 in all. They are hung up in a plaza between classrooms.
Arrese said news of the name ban “enraged” the Greek community. The presidents of 22 campus fraternities signed letters in support of letting survivors write whatever they want on the shirts. Sororities on campus are collecting signatures from each member before submitting letters to the university, he said.
Representatives from the university’s legal department and sponsors of the Clothesline Project plan to meet on Monday to discuss the issue, Williams said.
“The concern is that when you start putting names on the shirt — Phil Johnson for example — that there could be five or six Phil Johnsons on campus,” he said.
But Fisher said she is more worried that the name ban could be a “slippery slope” in which the university would continue to regulate what can be on the shirts. She said the shirts in question refer to sexual assaults reported to the university and, in one case, to the police.
Williams said the university does not want to list the names of alleged assailants who might have pending legal charges or court cases.
“I’m afraid the university has their priorities wrong,” Arrese said. “It’s a lot bigger risk to have the survivor feel her rights were violated.”
In a brochure posted on the Clothesline Project’s Web site, the organization specifically addresses naming perpetrators. While recognizing that naming the individual can be “part of the healing process for legal reasons, we cannot display shirts with full names of the perpetrators. We ask that shirt makers use first names or initials if they wish to name their violator.”
Fisher said the organization only gives out guidelines and each chapter adapts these to meet the needs of its own community.
Although only a handful of the shirts have first and last names, Arrese said those shirts show people that sexual assaults do happen on campus, and the names make that message more real and powerful.
“Think of it as a rape cemetery,” he said. “They lay all this to rest with those shirts.”
Sam Moni, a senior at Maryland and a sorority member, said the university is sending a message it is more concerned for perpetrators than the survivors.
“It’s incredibly disappointing in light of how hard we’ve worked to create an environment where someone can feel comfortable coming forward,” she said. “It feels like the university has launched a counterattack.”