Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Prohibition on Homecoming Demonstrations

Category: Cases, Free Speech
Schools: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) are engaged in a long-running dispute over control of the Student Union, which has been operated by students for over 125 years. In October 2017, RPI’s administration denied — for the second time — permission for the students to hold a demonstration critical of the administration. This denial prohibited students from holding any peaceful demonstrations during homecoming weekend, when the campus was to host alumni, donors, and other stakeholders. RPI initiated sanctions proceedings against students who participated in the peaceful demonstration, and sought sanctions against one student for distributing a letter in support of the campaign. FIRE wrote three letters to RPI calling on the administration to abandon its pattern of censorship of “Save the Union” proponents. RPI eventually found the students not responsible for the charges against them.

    • RPI protesters face disciplinary action

      November 12, 2017

      By Mark Robarge at the Troy Record. A month after several hundred students, alumni, faculty and staff at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute protested the college administration’s plan to take control of the traditionally student-run Rensselaer Union, many of those protesters now find themselves facing disciplinary action… Read more here.

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    • Troy Police Department videotaped student demonstrators at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private institution

      March 27, 2018

      Last fall, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute went to great lengths to suppress its students’ peaceful demonstrations — criticizing the institute’s administration — outside of a black-tie fundraiser. RPI administrators denied students’ request for permission to hold a peaceful demonstration (and not for the first time), built a fence to keep students far away from the fundraiser, then peppered students with a number of frivolous charges, all of which were ultimately dropped or resolved in the students’ favor. Dean of Students Travis Apgar later distributed talking points lamenting critics “who hide behind anonymity” and describing the demonstration as consisting of “highly tense […]

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    • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: We want a ‘controlled environment’ for student speech

      March 26, 2018

      In February, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute stood on a sidewalk outside of a hockey game, passing out buttons and flyers critical of the administration — until private security guards stopped them, claiming they had “eminent domain” over what the students reasonably believed to be a public sidewalk. In a town hall last week (full video here, and relevant video here), RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson asked the Institute’s public relations director and lawyer to respond to the controversy. After conceding that an officer was wrong to use the term “eminent domain” — which made no sense at all — […]

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    • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute doubles down on sidewalk censorship

      March 15, 2018

      Last month, private security guards at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute booted two students from a sidewalk as they passed out flyers and buttons critical of the administration outside of a hockey game. When the students pointed out that the sidewalk appeared to be a public sidewalk — as opposed to the property of the private institution — the officers claimed that RPI controlled it because of “eminent domain.” So we sent RPI a letter — our fourth since October — pointing out that this was incoherent censorship and asking for an explanation, as well as any documents that might explain why […]

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    • The state of free speech at RPI: Not good

      February 28, 2018

      Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has a long history of censoring anything controversial, from criticism of the Iraq War to critics of that criticism. Over the past year, RPI continued that tradition, working (literally) day and night to censor students. The target? Students who criticized what they perceive to be RPI administrators’ attempts to take over the Rensselaer Union — an organization and facility that has been independently operated by RPI students for over a century. What do RPI students and faculty make of the administration’s repeated attacks on free speech? Watch our documentary to find out, and join the students in […]

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    • The 10 worst colleges for free speech: 2018

      February 12, 2018

      Every year, FIRE chooses the 10 worst colleges for free speech — and unfortunately, 2017 left us with plenty of options: Campuses were rocked by violent mob censorship, monitored by bias response teams, plagued by free speech zones, and beset by far too many disinvitation attempts. Although the number of colleges with the most restrictive speech codes has continued to decline, 90 percent of schools still maintain codes that either clearly restrict or could too easily be used to restrict free speech. Today, we present our 2018 list of the 10 worst colleges for free speech. As always, our list […]

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    • FIRE names America’s 10 worst colleges for free speech: 2018

      February 12, 2018

      PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 12, 2018 — Each year, colleges across the country find dubious ways to silence student and faculty expression. In the last year, administrators became embroiled in litigation for telling a student he couldn’t hand out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution outside a free speech zone, continued a years-long effort to ban a group from campus due to its political viewpoint, and even investigated a professor for a satirical tweet — eventually driving him to resign. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has identified America’s 10 worst colleges for free speech, published today with detailed descriptions on […]

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    • New York Civil Liberties Union questions Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s invocation of “non-existent” policies

      December 28, 2017

      In the wake of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s repeated attempts to stifle student supporters of the “Save the Union” campaign, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has now weighed in with a letter of its own, sharing its “grave concerns about credible reports that the Institute has been violating its own policies on free expression and due process in a very serious and disingenuous manner.” RPI’s efforts have found it tearing down student flyers, fencing off a startlingly large portion of its campus to keep protesters out of view of a black-tie fundraiser, and charging a student with solicitation for […]

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    • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute drops charges against “Save the Union” protesters

      December 21, 2017

      This fall, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) advocating for the preservation of a student-governed Union found themselves subject to audacious efforts to stifle criticism of the Institute’s administration: employees caught on camera tearing down flyers before dawn, and the erection of a fence across a significant part of the campus in order to keep would-be demonstrators out of eyesight of would-be donors. These efforts came in spite of Institute policy expressly forbidding administrators from denying access to campus facilities for the purpose of frustrating student expression. After the dust settled — who are we kidding, the demonstration was so […]

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    • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute thinks you’re subject to its student conduct policy even if you’re not a student

      November 21, 2017

      If you think you’ve read a lot about Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in this space lately, you’re right: This is the sixth time this fall that FIRE is writing about RPI. We’ve also sent the school three letters this year. Unfortunately, we can’t promise this will be the last time, either — RPI seems hellbent on violating its promises to students in new and noteworthy ways. And even if you’re already an expert on RPI’s unconscionable attempts to hinder its students’ expressive rights, keep reading. In this latest installment, we’ll cover RPI’s attempt to make the Star Chamber look like a bastion […]

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    • As Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute threatens more students with punishment, student body president highlights RPI’s missed opportunity

      November 17, 2017

      On Monday, we shared a letter we sent to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a private institution in Troy, New York, where students are engaged in a long-running dispute with administrators about control of the Rensselaer Union. That quarrel has already seen RPI’s administration tearing down posters (on video), denying students’ requests for permission to demonstrate, and building a fence to keep student demonstrators far out of the earshot of donors at a black-tie fundraiser. Now, RPI is suggesting it may seek to punish more students, again defying its express commitment to students’ freedom of expression. In talking points prepared by RPI’s […]

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    • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students face sanctions for protesting president’s black-tie fundraiser

      November 13, 2017

      TROY, N.Y., Nov. 13, 2017 — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute administrators are doubling down on their crusade to stamp out student criticism. The school is bringing disciplinary charges against students who participated in a peaceful demonstration last month, even accusing one student of “operating a business” because he distributed a flyer criticizing Rensselaer’s administration. Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to Rensselaer — for the third time this fall — to condemn the charges and demand the school respect student expression. After denying students permission to hold a peaceful demonstration outside of the institute’s black-tie fundraiser on dubious grounds, […]

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    • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s commitment to freedom of expression remains doubtful

      November 8, 2017

      Last month, FIRE raised concerns about whether Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is truly committed to its students’ freedom of expression — a right the private institution promises to uphold — due to the school’s repeated refusals to allow students to hold peaceful demonstrations critical of the administration. Unfortunately, RPI refused to substantively respond to our criticism and instead continued its pattern of enforcing vague policies to punish students supportive of the “Save the Union” campaign. The dispute pits the student- and alumni-driven “Save the Union” campaign against RPI’s leadership. “Save the Union” advocates oppose what they see as a power grab […]

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    • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president (literally) fences out free speech

      October 12, 2017

      TROY, N.Y., Oct. 12, 2017 — In the latest salvo fired in a long-running dispute over control of the student union, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute administrators have again banned student demonstrations — this time forbidding dissent during this weekend’s homecoming celebration. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to the private university earlier this week to demand that RPI end its blanket ban on student demonstrations planned for this weekend. In a stark illustration of its intent to keep out dissenting student voices, this week the administration erected a fence across wide swaths of the campus. The fence effectively prohibits students […]

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    • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute denies students permission to protest administration — again

      October 9, 2017

      Last year, we told you about how students and faculty at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) were denied permission to hold a demonstration in support of their “Save the Union” campaign, and defied the administration by holding their demonstration anyway, cleverly labeling it a “class” about peaceful demonstrations. Now, RPI is once again denying students permission to hold a demonstration critical of the administration, this time during homecoming. FIRE is calling on RPI’s administration to back down. The long-running dispute over the Rensselaer Union involves the administration’s attempts to take control of the student-run union, which houses the bookstore, spaces for […]

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    • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Cynical Attempt to Shut Down Protest Fails Spectacularly

      April 1, 2016

      The practice of university administrators providing absurd justifications for prohibiting student demonstrations is alive and well at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in New York. Administrators there cited a biannual speech by RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson as the reason why students couldn’t hold a “peaceful demonstration” outside the event, because the demonstration might be “disruptive to classes and operation of the educational enterprise.” Students, however—aided by a professor’s clever idea to hold a class about peaceful demonstrations during that time and in the same place as the proposed demonstration—carried on their demonstration anyway. At RPI, students are concerned that the […]

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