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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute doubles down on sidewalk censorship

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 RPI thinks it can dictate who may pass out flyers on a public sidewalk.

In our experience, college officials would ordinarily be quick to save face by excusing the whole matter as the result of some confusion on the part of a wayward, if well-meaning, employee. A savvy official might even offer a perfunctory reassurance that the institution cares deeply about freedom of expression and explain that this won’t happen again.

RPI did not do this. Instead, it claimed that students need to get permission before they express themselves.

FIRE hasn’t received a response to our letter, but RPI talked to the Washington Free Beacon about the incident:

RPI spokesperson Richie Hunter told the Washington Free Beacon in an email that “students are allowed to distribute materials on campus with prior authorization,” but that [the students] failed to do so.

Hunter did not respond to queries regarding the claims of “eminent domain” and RPI direction of student activities on public property.

In a subsequent email chain with one of the students, Hunter repeatedly declined to dispute the students’ assertion that the sidewalks are, in fact, public property, saying only that “[e]minent domain is not relevant in this situation.” Likewise, an ongoing FIRE public records request to the City of Troy has not turned up any trace of any permit granting RPI control over any public sidewalk.

Pressed to identify the policy requiring students to seek permission to express themselves, Hunter quoted a section of the student handbook warning that “[i]ndividual students or groups of students who wish to reserve buildings, classrooms, or outdoor facilities at Rensselaer should consult with” particular administrators.

Hunter explained what RPI thinks this means: “Activities which [sic] groups wish to promote a cause, event, etc. must work either through the Union, Dean of Students Office, or the appropriate location supervisor to receive permission.”

But that’s not what the policy requires. The policy speaks to students who want to reserve areas of campus — that is, to have the right to exclude others so that they may undertake some activity. Even if RPI’s interpretation were supported by the plain language of the policy, it would contradict not only RPI’s promises to its students that the Institute will not “impede or obstruct students in the exercise of their fundamental rights as citizens,” nor use the “denial of access” to its facilities “as a means of censorship or suppression of any lawful activity.” RPI’s strained reading of its own policy would also contradict the  promise the school has made to its accreditor that it maintains a “commitment to … freedom of expression.”

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen time and time again, the default rule at RPI is that students need permission to speak their minds — and that permission won’t be forthcoming if that speech involves criticism of the administration. RPI’s promises that it respects students’ freedom of expression are empty, at best.

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