McMasters on the Free Speech Controversy at George Mason University

By October 24, 2005

Paul K. McMasters, renowned First Amendment expert and member of the Board of Editors for FIRE’s Guides to Student Rights on Campus series, has published an important piece (with an equally great title, “Fear of Dissent Is a Fear of Freedom”) on the recent controversy over student protests of military recruiters. The most notable case was at George Mason University in Virginia.

As Paul explains:

Late last month, a junior sociology major at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., silently stationed himself near a military recruiters’ table on campus. The student, Tariq Khan, is a Pakistani-American and a four-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He held literature and wore a sign stating, “Recruiters lie. Don’t be deceived.&rdquo

The recruiters, naturally, were not happy. Some bystanders weren’t either. Words were exchanged. Campus police arrived, Tariq Khan was unable to produce identification, a scuffle ensued, and the student, bruised and bloodied, according to one news account, was taken to jail. He will appear in court on Nov. 14 on misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and trespassing.

The article goes on to note similar cases have been reported at half a dozen other campuses. FIRE is and has been looking into these cases.

While the numerous news accounts of the GMU case seem to rely heavily on the claims of the student involved, not even GMU’s statements indicate activity that the school should have punished, and they certainly do not indicate “disorderly conduct” or “trespassing.”

Last Thursday (October 20) George Mason issued this statement:

The university has investigated the incident that resulted in the arrest of a George Mason student on campus three weeks ago. Statements from numerous witnesses, police officers and Johnson Center officials have been reviewed during this process.

In light of the results of the investigation, the university believes it would be inappropriate for this student to be prosecuted in a criminal court. Although aspects of this matter could have been handled differently, the investigation has not revealed facts that would corroborate allegations of bias on the part of university officials. Students involved in the incident are being referred to the Dean of Students.

The university has embarked upon a thorough review of all policies and procedures pertaining to leafleting, demonstrations and other activities associated with free speech, with a goal of providing a safe and secure campus environment that preserves the rights of all those in the George Mason University community to express their view.

So, I guess it’s good news that George Mason is not pushing for the prosecution of a student who seems only to have been peacefully protesting, but why on earth he was arrested in the first place?

According to Inside Higher Ed:

[An] officer who showed up asked Khan for identification. He did not have any on him. Walsch said that the Johnson Center is open to the public, and Khan was not required to carry identification. When Khan refused to leave or produce identification, the officer went for the cuffs.

At that point, Khan says he “walked” backward, while Michael Lynch, chief of the university police department, says he ran away. “He was told to turn around and put his hands behind his back,” Lynch said. “Had he done that, it would have been something similar to Cindy Sheehan or other peaceful protesters making a statement and getting arrested.” Witnesses said that Khan ended up face down with a center staff member and an officer restraining and handcuffing him. “A police officer put him in a headlock, and he was trying to get away while repeating loudly, ‘I’m not violent, I haven’t done anything wrong,’” recalled Aimee Wells, a student who saw the incident.

Khan was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, and trespassing, for his refusal to leave the building when asked.

Even if the story is taken in a light most favorable to GMU (and I am not in the habit of taking university officials’ words uncritically), it hardly sounds as if the student needed to be hauled away in handcuffs. Handing out leaflets, after all, is considered so non-invasive that the Supreme Court finds most attempts to prevent leafleting unreasonable. This is a form of protest that is strongly and traditionally protected and should be respected at a public college like George Mason.

Later the article describes a result of the arrest:

One-hundred and twenty-nine faculty members signed an open letter that read that “no one non-violently exercising his/her right to free speech, blocking no flow of traffic…should ever be ordered to move from a public space.”

This is a simple, basic principle of free expression, but one that I am afraid too many campuses have forgotten. People should be allowed to engage in peaceful protest in public spaces. If students attempted to silence the protestor through violence, as Khan’s account suggests, the college had a duty to protect the protestor’s rights, not to give in to the will of those who would silence him. Given how bureaucratic and hostile to dissent many colleges seem to be these days and the rising tension between military recruiters and protestors of the war, I think we can only expect more incidents like the one at GMU.

Schools: George Mason University