Activism on campus: Recent protests, pending policy review bring USU issues to fore

April 10, 2011

By Kevin Opsahl at The Herald Journal

Days before the end of the 2011 general legislative session, Utah State University student Justin Hinh had crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s on his plan to hold a rally for Senate Bill 288.

The bill would have created a guest worker program in which undocumented workers could pay and apply for guest workers permits, and Hinh thought he would march with his friends with the USU College Democrats/Libertarians, the Latino Student Union and the USU Access and Diversity club.

Hinh would find out that he was not able to march with his friends under the monikers they so desired because of where the groups’ funding came from: public coffers. Hinh said when USU officials explained why, he “begrudgingly agree(d)” with the school’s policy.

“It really sucked not being able to get my clubs out there and the others,” Hinh told The Herald Journal. “We wanted to show that we are a united front.”

Hinh said other clubs, like the USU College Republicans or Democrats, get private money and have “a lot more leverage” in influencing students on campus.

Eric Olsen, associate vice president for student services at USU, said the school’s administration is in the process of rewriting the entire student code, with hopes of having it completed this summer. The revisions must jump through several hurdles, including the Associated Students of Utah State University Executive Council, provost, president and Board of Trustees. Student code revisions are routine, yet they don’t occur every year.

“We could have pushed through the free speech part earlier, but decided to do it all at once,” Olsen said.

Olsen was not available for comment on what the code revisions could mean for student conduct at USU.

The issue brings up the never-ending discussion of students’ individual rights.
Whether it’s the Ivy League columns of Harvard University or the steps of Old Main at USU, the debate over free speech is as fresh as ever.

The month of March saw several instances of student activism at USU in Logan, but they were small.

Students went to the State Capitol and presented Gov. Gary Herbert with the “Green Hole Award” to protest against a bill he signed outlawing E-signatures. USU students from the Young Americans for Liberty chapter also erected a 40-foot-long national debt clock on the USU Taggart Student Center patio to petition Sens. Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch to “get serious” about spending.

The biggest demonstration by USU students in the past decade was in 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq War.

Michael Lyons, associate political science professor at USU, believes student engagement is at an all-time low.

“The recession has caused students to focus on starting careers,” Lyons said. “That’s natural and logical that their focus would be on … just trying to survive in the current economic climate.”

Lyons continued, “It’s not as if the students lack interest in the events of Libya or Afghanistan. Many of them are curious and have a broad perspective about events around the world and concern about issues.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (F.I.R.E.), a national nonprofit organization, graded USU on its efforts to uphold free speech. USU received a “red light” rating, meaning the institution has at least one policy that “both clearly and substantially restricts” freedom of speech.

At issue with F.I.R.E. was the article on “Responsibilities of Students” as outlined in the Code of Policies and Procedures for Students at Utah State University. The USU policy states that, “All interactions … shall be conducted with courtesy, civility, decency, and a concern for personal dignity.”

“To require that of students, or else subject them to sanctions under the policy, goes too far,” said Azhar Majeed, an attorney for F.I.R.E. “What we often tell universities with policies like this is if you want to encourage students to behave in decent ways, that’s perfectly within your rights. But if you say you’re requiring them to act this way, then you’re actually hurting their freedoms … this should be an aspiration goal and not a requirement.”

Terry Camp, president of the USU College Republicans, agrees with that sentiment.
“Maybe the university should look at some of those policies to see if they can be re-written,” Camp said. “What does ‘a concern for personal dignity’ mean? It could mean one thing to me and a completely different thing to administrators.”

Camp said he’s heard about other schools across the country punishing students for offending another group of students.

“You don’t have a right to not be offended,” Camp said. “Just because somebody offends you doesn’t always mean they should be kicked out of school. … Teasing and cat calls aren’t OK — but you can choose to ignore them.”

Majeed said F.I.R.E. only looked at USU policies “on its face” to give it the “red light” and did not state what specific actions the school took to limit free speech. The ratings were given in 2006.

USU has three classifications of groups on campus. The first type is called “university-registered” organizations, which take no money from the school. Political groups like the USU College Republicans — which feature chapters across the country — can protest or rally and make political statements however they want, as long as it falls within the law.

The other two classifications of campus organizations — “departmental-sponsored student organizations” and ASUSU — are not allowed to hold protests or rallies because they receive funding from various university departments, according to Olsen.

“It could be viewed, if you trace the money all the way back, they do receive essentially support from the state of Utah,” Olsen said. “You can’t use state money to protest against the state.”

USU Spokesman John DeVilbiss said the university is bound by “hard rules” and “soft rules” in regard to allowing departmental organizations to take political sides.

“We have rules that can’t be ignored,” DeVilbiss said. “There are some sensitivities because students are citizens … so it’s not one of those things that’s totally black and white.”
Department-sponsored student organizations fall under what’s called the Council of Student Clubs and Organizations.

“Politically we have to be on good terms with them (CSCO), so that’s kind of restricting in that sense,” Hinh said. “We’re not trying to piss the school off so that we don’t have any money. That’s probably the biggest hurdle to free speech that we have … because of bureaucratic bias.”

Even though there is a debate about free speech at USU when discussing the specifics, students don’t feel like the school is a prison for their individual rights.

Camp said USU has “been pretty good to us in terms of our protesting abilities … and even as far as (the College Republicans’ monthly) concealed weapons classes.”

Camp also noted the born-again preachers who hand out information and demonstrate on the student center patio on campus.

“They put things on their white board about whether Mormons are really Christians,” Camp wrote in an email. “This incites a little anger in many students, but on a public taxpayer-funded campus they have the right to set up there and do it — even though I don’t agree and they are attacking my religious beliefs.”

And even Hinh — who wishes the university would honor his request to hold rallies with other groups on campus — has good things to say about individual rights at USU.

“We have free speech zones all around the school. We’re not too restrictive,” Hinh said. “Other schools have to get permission for the administration to have a ‘free speech wall.’ Other very liberal schools (tell students they) can’t write or say anything offensive.”

Olsen said USU is a place where students can openly express their views.

“We certainly support the First Amendment where as long as students follow the law, they can exercise that First Amendment right,” he said.

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Schools: Utah State University