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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute denies students permission to protest administration — again

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 student organizations, and other student services. The administration most recently claimed the right to appoint the Rensselaer Union’s director — a choice made by students for the past 125 years of the union’s existence. Opponents have put together a website staking out their position, complete with a timeline tracing the current dispute to the removal of student representatives from the Board of Trustees Student Life Committee in 2008.

With homecoming approaching this weekend — bringing with it alumni, donors, and other stakeholders whose presence on the campus is temporary — students have again sought permission to hold a demonstration at RPI concerning the union dispute. Once again, RPI’s administration has denied permission, citing the need to provide security for the administration’s programming.

As The Troy Record reports:

In a memo from Travis Apgar, assistant vice president for student life and dean of students, the college rejected an application by the group Save the Union for a peaceful demonstration between 4:30 and 11:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, outside the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center and the Richard G. Folsom Library. Apgar specifically cites the fact that that day opens Reunion & Homecoming weekend, with Jackson hosting a black-tie event for alumni that night in EMPAC and the Folsom Library to launch the college’s capital campaign.

Apgar said security demands were the administration’s primary concern.

“Rensselaer’s Public Safety team will be fully occupied in providing security for these events in addition to their normal safety and security work,” Apgar wrote. “Given the potential for a demonstration to disrupt these events and to exceed our capacity for providing safety and security, we made a decision some time ago that we would not approve demonstration applications for the dates of October 12-14, 2017.”

The last line of Apgar’s denial indicates that RPI didn’t so much reject the request, because it would not have even been considered: RPI’s administration had long since decided that no demonstrations would be permitted during the entirety of homecoming weekend.

RPI isn’t a public institution, but it does make firm promises to its students that they enjoy freedom of speech and assembly. Those promises aren’t suspended or revocable on certain weekends, or when it might embarrass administrators in front of alumni and donors.

It’s also true that a university could limit the time and place of a large demonstration during homecoming. But time, place, and manner restrictions have to be reasonable, and leave open the ability for demonstrators to get their message across to a relevant audience. In deciding in advance that all demonstrations, no matter their size or location, would be off-limits during homecoming, RPI is monopolizing all of its resources to the benefit of the administration’s message, while shutting out the students’ message entirely. And, as the students point out, RPI has a history of utilizing outside security firms when its own resources are stretched thin.

The administration’s prohibition on any demonstration is both contrary to RPI’s promises of freedom of expression, because it suggests viewpoint discrimination, and likely to only further alienate the administration from its students — who are likely to defy the denial anyway.

That’s why we wrote to RPI this morning, calling on the administration to rescind its denial and work with students to ensure that their voices have a home this year:

We hope the administration will reverse course and allow the demonstration, and we will keep you posted on any developments.

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