BYU bans protests on Y Mountain year after LGBTQ students lit it up in rainbow colors

The private religious school operated by the LDS Church said the decision is about safety and protecting property.

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Brigham Young University is now prohibiting any protests on Y Mountain — nearly a year after a group of students drew national attention for lighting up its iconic “Y” in rainbow colors to call out the school’s ban on LGBTQ relationships.

The rule change was made quietly last month when the private religious school updated its online demonstration policy to expressly list the hillside above Provo as off-limits for rallies. BYU owns the trail up to the concrete “Y” and the surrounding property.

Bradley Talbot, a gay student who organized the first surprise light display in March before graduating, and then hosted a second lighting in September, said Tuesday that he sees the ban as a “scare tactic by BYU.”

“But I’m not intimidated by it,” he said. “BYU has always been more afraid of me than I have of them, and I think this is further evidence of that.”

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, school spokesperson Carri Jenkins said the change was about keeping individuals safe on the steep terrain.

“[That] is certainly a concern, as well as having people comply with our policies while on university property,” she said.

Talbot, as well as other LGBTQ students and some professors, have spoken out about the change, arguing that the move is more about control than safety. Some noted that the university hosts hikes up to the “Y” each year for homecoming, as well as other events on the property.

And, according to a 2014 congressional bill, which allowed the school to purchase the land from the U.S. Forest Service, BYU also must provide public access. In a 2018 news release announcing the finalized purchase, BYU President Kevin Worthen said at the time: “We look forward to sharing Y Mountain with our neighbors, friends and visitors.”

Rebecca de Schweinitz, an associate professor of history at BYU whose research focuses on youth, politics and protests in America, said Tuesday, “I believe that if we are truly concerned about student safety ... it is essential that opportunities for students to express their views not be shut down.”

Being able to protest can give students a sense of hope and belonging, she noted, especially those in marginalized communities.

But anyone who violates the new rule, according to the university, could be disciplined or arrested. Additionally, the school noted that it may record any protests on campus property “for compliance.” Jenkins said that is a new addition to the policy.

BYU, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has long had rules for protesting on the private campus — which, it notes in the updated policy, is “not a public forum.” Before the recent changes, the requirements were called the “Public Expression Policy.” Now, it’s called the “Demonstration Policy.”

The updated policy continues to require that students not contradict or oppose church doctrine or policy in a protest. They can “analyze or discuss” tenets of the faith, but how that is considered different in practice to contradiction or opposition is not detailed.

Students also are not allowed to “deliberately attack or deride” the church, its leaders or violate the Honor Code at BYU. That code requires students to be chaste and honest, as well as not to use profane language or participate in illegal activities or drug use.

Confusion over the rules

The school states in the updated policy that leaders still encourage, as part of a university education, “intellectually enlarging experiences that promote civility in the exchange of ideas and that encourage civic engagement.”

But de Schweinitz feels many of the provisions are confusing and don’t seem to follow legal standards in the United States.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1969 — amid protests about the Vietnam War that erupted on college campuses — that universities cannot block the expression of unpopular or controversial opinions during demonstrations. BYU is a private school, de Schweinitz acknowledged, which does leave it exempt to some requirements for public institutions. But the standard is supposed to be that schools only stop protests if they substantially disrupt or interfere with operations.

Based on the most recent high-profile protests at BYU, de Schweinitz doesn’t think any of them have been disruptive.

A large group rallied against how the Honor Code was enforced in April 2019, including concerns about how sexual assault victims are treated.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sidney Draughon chants along with hundreds of students on the campus of Brigham Young University, to oppose how the school’s Honor Code Office investigates and disciplines students, Friday, April 12, 2019.

Students also demonstrated in March 2020 after the school put out a statement clarifying its stance on same-sex romantic behavior. A month before that, the university had quietly removed the section from its Honor Code banning “all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.”

LGBTQ students at the time celebrated what they hoped that meant, kissing in front of statues at BYU and holding hands. Many said they came out as gay only because they believed — and were told by some Honor Code staff — that the school now allowed it.

But many also say that was ripped away when leaders later said that just because the section was taken out of the code, it did not mean LGBTQ relationships were now “compatible” with the rules at BYU.

During both of those rallies, students held signs and sang hymns. De Schweinitz described them as peaceful.

She noted that, under BYU’s updated policy, students have no way of knowing what qualifies as opposing a church doctrine, or merely analyzing it.

“Demonstrations are designed to show opposition or approval to something,” she said. “So this policy just doesn’t make any sense. Are there certain topics that are off limits?”

Talbot said that when he organized the lighting of the “Y” in March to commemorate the one-year anniversary of what he refers to as the “Honor Code betrayal” for LGBTQ students, it wasn’t meant to be a protest. He saw it as a symbol or a message.

“This was our call to the university to say, ‘Let’s work this out. Let’s make some change and progress together,’” he said.

About 40 students and allies took part in activity. The group spent days mapping out the 380-foot tall letter and determining where they would need to stand along its borders to light it up.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A group of people, including many BYU students, shine rainbow lights on the "Y" on the mountain above BYU in Provo on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

The participants hiked up to the “Y” at sundown and each were assigned a color and a spot on the letter to hold their light, so that the letter would appear in rainbow stripes, starting with red at the top down to purple at the bottom. When they turned on their colored flashlights — 76 in total — and reflected them toward the concrete, the result could be seen across Provo, with people commenting and posting pictures on social media from miles away.

Amid the growing attention that evening, the school sent out a brief tweet noting: “BYU did not authorize the lighting of the Y tonight.” No students were disciplined after the event, though campus police were waiting at the trailhead when they walked down.

At the time, Talbot had said: “It’s a display. We’re not vandalizing anything. We’re not breaking the law.”

He worries about who will now decide what is — or isn’t — considered a demonstration, and if that will turn into “a game of semantics” against causes the university doesn’t support.

Protecting university property

Under the changes, BYU now defines a demonstration as “an event that occurs on university property that is not sponsored by the university in which two or more people gather to raise awareness about, or express a viewpoint on, an issue or cause.”

That can include marches, memorials, parades, picketing, leafletting, signature-gathering, rallies, sit-ins and counterdemonstrations, according to the school.

Cal Burke, a recent BYU student who is gay, questioned what activities between two people will raise alarms. De Schweinitz also saw that figure as a low number; most campuses consider a group to be five or more people. She noted that could apply to church missionaries at BYU, who work in pairs handing out information.

“Does it also mean that two faculty members having rainbow ‘safe space’ signs on their door is a protest?” Burke asked.

Talbot also wondered about the Rainbow Day on campus he has hosted each semester to highlight LGBTQ students, handing out pins and encouraging folks to dress up in every color — would that apply?

Jenkins, the BYU spokesperson, told The Tribune that “if the intent is to form a gathering, then this policy would apply.”

Under the rules already in place, in order to host a campus event that could be construed as a demonstration, students have to apply with at least five days notice.

They no longer need to have a faculty sponsor, but the application must be submitted to the dean of students. Then, the dean, along with the managing director of BYU police, the vice president of belonging and the academic vice president, will decide whether or not to approve the request.

In addition to Y Mountain, students also are not allowed to protest at any place that would disrupt university functions (such as classes), within 100 feet of another demonstration, or within any buildings.

The policy notes: “Applications for demonstrations in these areas will be denied.” There is no appeals process.

Sound amplification, such a megaphone, also is not permitted. And the policy limits protesters to only include students and staff at BYU. Members of the public may not join.

There has been some concern over outside individuals showing up and threatening students, including members of DezNat, a far-right online group in the faith.

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) A family chats amongst themselves as they show support for Rainbow Day with a rainbow-colored umbrella while others show their support for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 1995 statement "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" with non-rainbow umbrellas on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

At one Rainbow Day event last year, a few counterprotesters came and read the LDS Church’s official proclamation on the family, which teaches members of the faith that gender is an “eternal identity” and which BYU cited to support its clarification of the Honor Code last year.

Jenkins said those individuals prompted the provision, with the school wanting to protect students.

But de Schweinitz said even for a private university, the rules are stringent, blocking even alumni or students’ family members from demonstrating. For example, the 2019 protest against how the school enforced its Honor Code was led by Sidney Draughon, a BYU graduate. She would not be allowed to do so again, under the new standards.

The policy notes that those who do not follow the rules will be subject to disciplinary action at the school, including being banned from university property. And those who violate federal or state laws may be arrested.

Recording the demonstrations, too, Jenkins noted, “is part of our effort to maintain an environment conducive to learning, to preserve the safety of the campus community and visitors, and to protect university property.”

Not giving in

Burke said he is surprised by the school’s recent actions. He doesn’t feel like the institution is addressing what actually needs to change, to be more accepting and welcoming.

“Rainbow Day and lighting the ‘Y’ disturbed no one and caused no property damage,” he said. “Meanwhile at BYU, professors openly harass minority students, racism and threats of violence from right-wing members run rampant on campus, and yet BYU’s leadership has decided not to condemn those actions or enforce its policies to make campus safer. … This is a total dereliction of the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

Last year, a professor publicly called Burke a Book of Mormon term associated with an anti-Christ. The school declined to say whether it would take action against the professor. Burke now fears, in cases where LGBTQ students are targeted, allies also will be wary of standing with them.

“This is not pastoral leadership,” he said. “This is a temper tantrum.”

For his part, Talbot doesn’t believe the new provisions will be effective in actually stopping protests on Y mountain. Since it is open to the public, Talbot says he still intends to visit — with a flashlight, as recommended by BYU’s alumni website.

Danny Niemann, who participated in lighting the ‘Y’ in March, also said he thinks the school should be encouraging students to speak out — and listening to them when they do.

“Prohibiting the lighting of the ‘Y’ won’t stop new queer students from realizing that their lives are more precious and free than the university allows, and it won’t stop a more accepting generation from seeing the same,” he said. “My generation is humanizing their queer friends faster than the BYU admin can try to prevent this.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lorenzo Larios, left, and Danny Niemann chant "gay rights" as they join the student protest outside the student center at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah Wednesday, March 4, 2020, after an official with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints school issued a clarification to the school's Honor Code, which said that same-sex romantic behavior is still "not compatible" with the rules at BYU.