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

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 peaceful that it didn’t even kick up dust — several RPI students were charged with trespassing and violating RPI's rules concerning demonstrations. As we wrote in our three letters to RPI, it was abundantly clear that the Institute was attempting to stretch vague policies to penalize peaceful criticism of the administration.

Yesterday, a press release issued by “Save the Union” advocates announced that the charges against the student demonstrators had been dropped:

The most serious charges were levied at students who participated in a peaceful protest against poor governance and mismanagement on campus. These charges were quietly dismissed by Travis Apgar, RPI’s Dean of Students, with Apgar stating “the preponderance of the evidence does not support a finding of responsibility.” These judicial charges, along with others that were levied upon students who supposedly distributed dissenting materials, were widely seen as retaliation against protests that have embarrassed the Institute’s embattled president.

It’s welcome news that students critical of the Institute’s administration will not be formally punished this time, but damage to freedom of expression at RPI was done by bringing the charges at all. As Bryan Johns, one of the charged students, put it:

“While I am grateful to see the charges dismissed, they never should have been levied in the first place. By bringing these charges against students, RPI has clearly demonstrated its contempt for student free speech and constructive criticism,” said Bryan Johns, another student who faced judicial charges. “Dismissing them is simply too little, too late.”

The message is clear: if you criticize RPI’s administration, be prepared to face charges and hearings. Even if you are ultimately exonerated, it will be difficult to convince other students to join your cause in the future.

Last month, RPI responded to FIRE’s multiple, lengthy letters with a brusque letter of its own. Our prior correspondence had pointedly raised our concern that the Institute maintained vague policies that allowed administrators to censor or penalize speech at their leisure — discretion that cannot be squared with a defensible commitment to freedom of expression. While RPI is a private institution not bound by the First Amendment, it promises its students freedom of expression.

RPI provided us with this reassurance:

Finally, no student is sanctioned for expressing an opinion, provided it is within the realm of civil discourse (e.g., not hate speech or threatening). Disciplinary sanctions at Rensselaer are based on conduct that violates the rules and expectations set forth in our policies, not on expression of an opinion.

Asserting that students won’t be punished for expressing an opinion if it’s within an administrator’s definition of what constitutes “civil discourse” is not reassuring. When RPI administrators have complained publicly about “personal attacks” and “often insulting misinformation about the University administration,” it’s not a welcome sign that the campus leadership endorses the view that perceived incivility may be taken into consideration in determining what speech is impermissible.  

Moreover, our concern was that RPI’s policies were so vague that administrators could interpose their own subjective views and values in lieu of written, objective policies. Not only are “hate speech” and “civil discourse” hopelessly subjective evaluations, but these “hate speech” and “civil discourse” regulations do not appear in RPI’s Student Handbook. Even if these policies were written, prohibitions on “hate speech” are fundamentally at odds with freedom of expression — a position held even by a unanimous Supreme Court.

RPI concludes by arguing that “[f]ree expression of viewpoints has long been a value and tradition at Rensselaer” and that the Institute was confident that the matters would be “resolved appropriately . . . in a manner that fully upholds this value and tradition.”

A claim that there exists a tradition of respect for freedom of expression invites scrutiny of past events to determine whether that tradition actually exists. In RPI’s case, that history reveals a tradition of resorting to censorship when there’s a risk that the Institute might be drawn into controversy:

  • In 2008, RPI’s Arts Department hosted a presentation by Wafaa Bilal, an artist who had fled Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in which he demonstrated a version of a video game intended to “bring attention to the vulnerability of Iraqi civilians, to the travesties of the current war, and to expose racist generalizations and profiling.” After the presentation was criticized by College Republicans, RPI’s administration suspended and then shuttered the exhibit, claiming that while “Rensselaer fully supports academic and artistic freedom,” those rights were secondary to the “right” and “responsibility to ensure that university resources are used in ways that are in the overall best interests of the institution.”
  • And what of the College Republicans who criticized the Arts Department? RPI removed their website from the Internet and accused them of harassment and violating a now-defunct rule requiring “common courtesy and respect for others” because of the “slanderous” statement on their blog: “The Arts Department – A Haven for Terrorists.”
  • That same year, RPI shuttered a professor’s email account after he criticized a provost and responded to an email from RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson by saying, “Sadly, I found more of the same subterfuge and insulting pabulum.” RPI claimed that while it “supports free inquiry and expression,” it had “the right to take action against or deny access to its facilities to those whose use is not consonant with the purposes of the university or infringes on the rights of others.”
  • In 2006, the Faculty Senate granted voting rights to non-tenure-track faculty — a position contrary to the wishes of RPI’s administration, which invalidated the Senate’s elections and suspended it. The move drew an investigation from the American Association of University Professors, which concluded that RPI’s administration “contravened basic principles of shared academic governance,” and drew pressure from RPI’s accreditor.
  • In 2016, RPI refused to let “Save the Union” advocates hold a peaceful demonstration (they did anyway). Since then, as we painstakingly detailed in our November 8 letter to RPI, RPI employees have been repeatedly videotaped removing “Save the Union” flyers, particularly in advance of events involving prospective students or donors. Security officers, told that RPI’s policies expressly permit posting flyers, have been recorded telling students that “today’s a different story.”

These are just the publicly-known examples. This history — citing its respect for freedom of expression while stifling its use — is a monument to policies that amply lend themselves to abuse.

One way to deter acts of censorship — which ultimately result in greater unflattering attention — would be to reform RPI’s policies such that they protect freedom of expression while meeting the Institute’s legitimate needs. However, RPI has declined to engage in a “dialog” with FIRE concerning its policies because it claims that this “dialog” must take place only between administrators and students.

That’s a poor excuse to avoid discussion. RPI’s involvement of its student body in campus governance is laudable — a feature of the campus that the “Save the Union” advocates seek to preserve. But there would be little issue in administrators listening to FIRE’s suggestions and then bringing ideas to the student body. Alternatively, if students want to bring proposed changes to RPI’s administration, we’re happy to lend our thoughts.

Until then, if your free speech is threatened at RPI — or at other institutions of higher education — get in touch with us.

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