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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Redressing our grievances

Protests on the Brandeis campus

Published: March 21, 2008
Section: Front Page

Intimately connected with freedom of speech is another concept: the freedom to peaceably assemble. Similarly protected by the First Amendment, this right’s aim, at least on some level, is ensuring that criticism of the government remains part of the public discourse. It institutionalizes the citizenry’s ability to hold the federal government publicly accountable for its actions.

While it sounds nice in theory, the application of this principle is infinitely harder, and is further complicated when the setting changes from America in general to the Brandeis campus. What restrictions, if any, apply to students who are protesting while on campus? What is their responsibility for maintaining a safe learning environment, despite the naturally disruptive nature of a protest? Is this responsibility lessened by a legitimate grievance?

Hanging over all of this is the legacy of the 1969 takeover of Ford Hall and Brandeis’ commitment to social justice, indelible parts of the university’s identity, and the fact that Rights & Responsibilities does address protests, while not addressing any other facet of speech other than harassment.

What do we want? Our money! When do we want it? Now!

Last semester Senior Vice President for Students and Enrollment Jean Eddy accepted a proposal from Student Events that allowed SE direct access to a portion of the Student Activities Fee, thereby removing it from Financial Board oversight.

After negotiations to bring the money back into the Union financial system failed, a protest was organized. Chanting “students know what students want,” the protesters moved through the administration buildings, dropping leaflets.

While this event was relatively well-publicized on campus, what is less widely known is that the Union, following the guidelines in Rights & Responsibilities, had to notify the Office of Student Life before holding the protest.

Unlike the other issues examined in this series, there are procedures and limits in place for holding a protest on campus, which are outlined in section 8 of R&R. In fact, while speech and publication merited no mention in R&R, the section on protests is extensive, with five subsections written on how, when, and where protests can be held.

To the university’s credit, R&R specifically cites that “the University community is one of inquiry and persuasion. A member of the University community may protest, rally or demonstrate provided such protest or demonstration does not disrupt University operations or obstruct physical movement to, from, or within any place on the campus.”

However, the next section, on its face, could be read as a restriction: “The Dean of Student Life or the dean’s designee must be notified in advance of any planned demonstrations, and may instruct organizers regarding the guidelines for such activity.”

As Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer explained, though, “it’s not permission, it’s for health and safety purposes. It’s collaboration. It’s to protect free speech and protests, and assist in support of it. It doesn’t say you have to apply for approval from the Dean of Student Life.”

Director of Student Conduct and Development Erika Lamarre agreed, saying that “most of the rationale behind the policies is rooted in safety, because you have people who live here and work here.”

“The current administration is not of a mind to stifle student voice,” she added. “It’s hard for me to envision it happening.” She likened the notification clause to protesters notifying the police before holding a march.

Director of Union Affairs Jason Gray ’10 admitted that notifying the Office of Student Life about the SE protest “didn’t feel like permission,” but did say “this is a great example of what if they had said, ‘no?’”

Answering his own question, Gray said, “we would have done it anyway. We felt and feel that it was the issue of Jean’s ignoring the [2006 SAF] vote. Voices were shut out of the process.”

In this vein, Sawyer admitted that students who were of a mind to close down part of the university would do just that, regardless of whether or not Student Life is aware.

“Students who really want to shut the place down are going to shut the place down,” he said. This hearkens back to the 1969 takeover of Ford Hall, which was held for ten days by students demanding better minority representation on campus.

So while R&R does discourage protests that shut down part of the campus, it is in section 8 that R&R comes the closest to protecting speech rights on campus. While the university is granted the ability to dictate the vague “time, place, and manner” of protests, there is no right to completely deny a protest.

And as Sawyer noted, at the end of the day, students who want to take their protest to the next level will do so. Though open to interpretation, like so many other Constitutional rights, Brandeis seems to have recognized the importance of allowing students to protest, and has laid out a system in R&R that both protects that right and the safety of the students not involved in the protest.

However, it is notable that the only area of R&R that addresses speech rights in reaction to the potential for protesters to create a dangerous environment on campus. There only positive rights in terms of speech are tied into restrictions for safety.

What will happen the next time speech is challenged?

This series has examined a number of incidents on campus that involved freedom of speech, and the actions taken by members of the university protecting it and denying it. But what comes next?

For Gray, sorting out the issue of rights on campus will protect students no matter who comes through the university administration.

“I trust Student Life and I think it’s important that students work with the administration to ensure that students feel comfortable,” he said. However, he asked “what guarantee do we have that people in the future will be as supportive of the rights of students on campus as they are?”

The same goes for Student Union Advocate Brian Paternostro ’08, who would also like to see an acknowledgment of the administration’s mishandling free speech issues in the past, such as “Voices of Palestine.”

“Anytime there’s an acknowledgement of rights, there’s this knowledge that someone f—ed up,” he said. “An acknowledgement of it would be an awkward handshake and we would move on. I think the university needs it.”

For McNamara, speech is a central tenet of our society, and issues involving speech need to be out in the open.

“You can’t ever file a free speech issue away, and the reason you have open discussion about these issues is because they’re the heart of democracy,” she said.

And for Prof. Govind Sreenivasan (HIST), the willingness to approach controversial topics on campus has only improved in the 11 years that he has been here, though it still isn’t where it should be.

“The Provost and the Dean of Arts and Sciences have been very courageous in insisting that diversity issues be taken seriously and discussed honestly at Brandeis, and both deserve a lot of credit for that,” he wrote in an e-mail to The Hoot. “More generally, I find that the willingness to have these often difficult discussions is now much broader among both students and faculty than used to be the case. Brandeis is clearly headed in the right direction.”

And if the willingness to discuss is there, maybe the next incident involving speech on campus will not be a missed opportunity, as so many have been in the last four years. Next time, the university could follow the advice of Gray. As he said, “rights should never be shied away from.”