USC

Viterbi professor questioned by students over display of ‘blue lives matter’ flag

The flag has garnered attention across campus from people who see it as ‘insensitive.’

A Blue Lives Matter flag hangs outside Industrial and Systems Engineering Professor James Moore's office at the Andrus Gerontology Center.

James Moore, a professor of industrial and systems engineering in the Viterbi School of Engineering, is currently under scrutiny from some students for hanging up a “blue lives matter” flag on his office door in the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center.

Moore began to receive backlash in mid-October when Shai Porat, a graduate student and Neuroscience Ph.D. candidate, raised concerns about the display to other neuroscience students and to the Dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering Yannis Yortsos.

“I felt frustrated, like it was supposed to be some kind of joke,” Porat said in an email to Annenberg Media. “I knocked on his door as soon as I saw the flag to ask him why he would have this flag up at all, but he was not in the office.”

The “blue lives matter” flag grew in popularity in 2014, after the killings of New York Police Department officers in Brooklyn, New York, as a symbol of support for law enforcement officers.

The single blue line running through the flag advocates for police. The slogan and flag are commonly used as a countermovement to Black Lives Matter, which advocates against police brutality.

Before reaching out to Yortsos, Porat sent an email to the neuroscience department to bring attention to the issue, saying “it would be a more powerful message if I had other students express concerns about the situation.”

He received roughly 20 responses from students and colleagues who reflected the same concerns but said he did not know how many others had reached out to the dean or USC’s Office of Equity and Diversity.

Porat’s complaint drew attention from students across campus, with some saying the display of the flag is “insensitive” to some people and communities.

“I think it’s insensitive to the communities and cultures at USC that have been directly affected by police brutality,” said Sammi Fay, a sophomore majoring in business administration.

Although students were upset by the flag, Viterbi and USC’s Office of Equity and Diversity both came to the conclusion that university policy does not allow for the flag to be removed.

Moore said he had multiple intentions behind displaying the flag.

“The public discourse around ‘defund the police’ and the constraints of which we have placed on the police have made it very difficult for them to do their job, and their job is important to our welfare,” Moore said. “The police have a critical role when it comes to protecting private property because it is property rights that make it possible for an economy to operate and for a society to thrive.”

Junior communications and environmental studies major Annika Goldman said she supports freedom of speech, but also cares about students feeling safe in their classrooms.

“What the ‘blue lives matter’ flag denotes is that blue lives matter, but what it connotes is denying the Black Lives Matter movement and also standing with police amidst police brutality, which I believe creates an unsafe environment for many USC students,” she said in an interview

When Porat reached out to USC’s Diversity Officers assigned to Gerontology and Viterbi, they informed him that he was not the first to issue a complaint about the flag being displayed. “They were happy that I raised this issue, but like the dean, informed me that due to lack of policy, nothing at the moment can be done about the situation,” Porat said.

Moore has drawn attention before, arguing in an article published in 2020 on the National Association of Scholars Website that he was skeptical USC has any “structural or institutional processes that perpetuate racism and inequality”.

Students protested and called for Moore’s termination in 2018 after he circulated an email stating that “accusers sometimes lie” in response to a school-wide email about Title IX. Moore’s email was sent hours after Christine Blasey Ford testified in the Senate that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were in high school.

“The university does not have a policy that limits the display of materials in spaces like this, though we are looking at whether it is needed,” USC said in a statement to Annenberg Media. “As part of the university’s commitment to academic freedom, a faculty member can express his or her individual beliefs and viewpoints on a wide variety of topics – even controversial issues – but they do not speak on behalf of a school or the broader university.”

Moore said he is pleased with how his employer has handled the situation. “USC has gotten questions about academic freedom right. Faculty are guaranteed academic and professional freedom under the faculty handbook,” he said.

According to the USC Faculty Handbook, “The University adheres to national standards and procedures concerning academic and professional freedom, academic tenure, and full academic due process.”

For sophomore business administration major Sonya de Urioste, Moore hanging the flag on his door is unnecessary and argues that it’s a “symbol of racism and political beliefs which go against the values of the university.”

“I think that everyone has a right to their own opinion but there is a place and time for sharing it,” de Urisote said.

Moore argued that students’ attempts to keep him from displaying the flag undermines USC’s progressive measures to let students, faculty and staff express themselves.

“The basic social context of USC is progressivism. That is treated as a matter of right and wrong. There are no competing points of view that are entertained very seriously,” Moore said. “I think that we are losing a capacity for discourse and examination of position and assumption, and that injures our interests.”

As chairwoman of the External Affairs Committee, junior Sydney Brown is seeking how to change the narrative of “blue lives matter” on campus. After receiving reports of DPS officers wearing ‘blue lives matter’ wristbands or having the flag in their Zoom backgrounds, Brown put together a program to educate officers on what the pro-police movement means to Black students in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

“This is educating them that you can take off your uniform. We can’t take off our skin tone,” Brown, who is Black, said.