Pardon the Protest

The administration should protect the free speech rights of students just as much as those of speakers.

By Maroon Editorial Board

We were all greeted by an email Sunday evening from Provost Thomas Rosenbaum and Vice President for Campus Life Kimberly Goff-Crews titled “Freedom of Expression.” On its surface, the letter paid lip service to the fundamental and uncontroversial principles of free speech that have long defined our campus. However, there was something troubling about this document: Under the surface, the letter was meant to single out the protesters who intended to exercise their freedom of speech at the Henry Paulson and Condoleezza Rice event to be held the next night. These sentiments are ultimately contradictory—freedom of speech is protected in one case but not in the other.

As the Maroon reported Tuesday, a sizable group of students intended to vocally protest Paulson and Rice’s speech in coordination with the Occupy protests, as many students align Paulson and Rice with institutional support of the “1%” decried by the movement. Wary of this, Rosenbaum and Goff-Crews’ letter asserted the University’s duty to “protect a speaker’s right to be heard,” while encouraging students to “challenge their ideas with honesty, rigor, and respect.”

Clearly we do not object to either of those statements; people with a wide range of views will always have a right to speak, but students will always have the right to challenge their ideas. However, it is hypocritical that a letter that ostensibly espouses freedom of expression and inclusion concludes with an overt threat to punish students who conduct themselves in a “disruptive” way.

The official University definition of “Disruptive Conduct” in this context is behaving “in a manner likely to deprive others of the benefit or enjoyment of the [University sponsored] activity.” Given the vague construction of this statute and the heightened awareness of University officials, it would take very little disruption on the part of the protesters to incite a swift response by the University.

Even though the letter tells us that these are “longstanding policies,” the implication that disciplinary procedures regarding protests at this University are set in stone is simply not true. For instance, this past summer the University updated its disciplinary code to impose stricter restrictions on sit-in and sidewalk protests—an apparent response to the housekeeper campaign waged by students last year. Administrators would have us believe they are simply deferring to historic precedent; in reality, these policies change often, and are designed to limit the flexibility of student expressions of free speech.

It’s unquestionable that Paulson and Rice have a right to speak on this campus. Students are obligated to respect these rights at all costs and to refrain from inflammatory outbursts or interruptions. While we understand that there will always be certain limits to freedom of expression, we recognize the students’ right to peaceable demonstration, and the University’s responsibility to protect this right without threatening its students with misleading emails.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and an additional Editorial Board member.