UMass’s effort to control protests spurs more criticism

By February 3, 2005

A move to tighten rules against disruptive demonstrations in campus buildings at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst met with angry resistance from some students and faculty, who planned to deliver a letter to school administrators today questioning the constitutionality of the changes.

Specialists on the issue said the controversy at UMass comes in the midst of a larger movement by administrators on college campuses nationwide to limit or contain protests, including a growing number of schools where demonstrations are allowed only in designated free-speech zones on campus. The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth recently adopted a similar policy, drawing criticism.

”We see an increasing trend for schools to view free speech as a potential problem, rather than an asset," said David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. ”Free speech can be kind of messy sometimes, and if there’s one thing administrators hate, it’s disorder."

On the Amherst campus yesterday, public outcry about the new policy had already produced one major change: Administrators removed a controversial sentence in the policy that had been widely interpreted as banning all demonstrations inside UMass buildings.

But even after that change, Bill Newman, director of the Western Massachusetts office of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the revised policy ”vague and overly broad" and said it leaves administrators too much latitude to decide what kinds of protests are acceptable.

UMass-Amherst officials said changes were needed to ensure the safety of employees after student demonstrations over student fees and racism allegations last year brought large crowds of disruptive students into the Whitmore Administration Building, where the chancellor and other administrators have offices.

”What’s happened with increasing frequency is that students have marched through Whitmore, banged on windows and doors, and yelled in a menacing manner," said Ed Blaguszewski, a UMass-Amherst spokesman. ”Staff members have locked their doors and said they felt their safety was threatened, and some staff, if they heard a protest was going to happen, have asked to stay home."

After review last fall by a small group of administrators, the campus picketing code, which has long prohibited behavior that ”materially disrupts class work or other University business," was updated last month.

A sentence was added, stating that ”any demonstration within a campus building is inherently disruptive." After the revision was criticized this week, that sentence was struck; the new section of the policy, which still threatens a maximum penalty of expulsion, now reads: ”Campus buildings are for University business. Any form of demonstration that interferes with University business in office or classroom space is a violation of this code."

Emma Lang, 19, a UMass sophomore from Cambridge, said she participated in about five marches through the Whitmore building last fall and spring, including demonstrations against a new fee charged to international students and protests against perceived racism on campus.

”The right to petition includes the right to petition loudly," she said. ”Politicians don’t read every letter they get, and if you want to make a statement and make sure it’s heard, the way to do it is to take it to people directly. . . . To restrict that on college campuses, where you’re supposed to learn to express your ideas and challenge people, seems terrible to me."

Meanwhile, some students and faculty at UMass-Dartmouth are criticizing a recent move to contain most demonstrations in what administrators designate as ”public forum space" on campus.

Campus spokesman John Hoey said all university campuses were asked by the UMass president’s office to select public forum spaces in 1997, after a large demonstration in Amherst. The Dartmouth campus finally complied this winter, following large campus disturbances during last fall’s baseball playoffs, by selecting a large, grassy area near the center of campus, he said.

The policy is meant ”to protect students, staff, and faculty from having their lives and their university business disrupted," Hoey said. Protests inside buildings are not banned, but will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

”It seems like a desperate attempt to avoid criticism, and we’re going to test it," said Dan Georgianna, president of the faculty union on the Dartmouth campus. ”One would hope a university would be a free-speech zone by itself, that it would be one place where people can say what they want."

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Schools: University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth