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

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 by the administration, which is pressing to assert more control over the 127-year-old, student-run Rensselaer Union. The Union advocates for students, controls the student activity fee, and provides resources to more than 200 student organizations. The Union also houses a bookstore, meeting rooms, and other student services.

Although RPI repeatedly promises that its students enjoy freedom of speech and assembly — and its accreditation as an institution of higher education requires it to both respect students’ freedom of expression and keep the promises it makes — RPI also demands that students obtain administrators’ permission to hold “peaceful demonstrations.”

RPI also imposes a “Sign Policy” that regulates the “style” and “content” of student signs, allowing administrators to remove signs if they deem them to be “graphically inappropriate, profane, libelous, in unsightly condition, or [communicating] outdated information” or simply believe them to be posted “in excess.” How many is too many? What graphics are “inappropriate”? It’s up to the administrator. And if that’s not enough, the policy lets administrators suspend the sign policy in “extraordinary” situations.

These vague policies risk creating the appearance of a conflict of interest, if not outright abuse. Administrators have broad, unrestrained discretion to withhold permission to hold peaceful demonstrations, the authority to remove written materials they deem to be inappropriate, and the ability to suspend the “Sign Policy” altogether. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that they would be most tempted to exercise that authority when the administration is the target of criticism.

Unfortunately, that appears to be exactly what has happened at RPI — again, and again, and again.

RPI has twice denied students permission to hold peaceful demonstrations in support of the “Save the Union” campaign. In 2016, Acting Dean of Students Cary Dresher denied permission to hold a “Save the Union” demonstration outside of a biannual “Town Hall Meeting” held by RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson. Dresher cited the possibility that the protest outside might be disruptive of the event inside. Students peacefully demonstrated anyway.

Last month, students again sought permission to hold a peaceful demonstration, this time outside of a black-tie fundraiser where Jackson was speaking to alumni and donors for homecoming weekend. RPI again denied permission to demonstrate, explaining that they had decided — in advance — that RPI would not permit any demonstrations during that weekend. RPI’s dean of students tried to explain that the administration carefully considered this request. But that excuse is contradicted by what the denial letter actually says: “we made a decision some time ago that we would not approve demonstration applications for the duration of homecoming weekend.” Like frequent flyer miles, RPI’s promises of free expression apparently come with blackout dates.

Once again, students demonstrated anyway, without incident, even though RPI went so far as to erect a fence in order to keep demonstrators away from prospective donors.

These incidents alone would be concerning, but RPI has also repeatedly exercised its authority to remove “Save the Union” signs from its campus — censorship repeatedly caught on camera or microphone. In advance of “Accepted Student Day” in 2016, RPI’s security personnel stopped students from posting “Save the Union” signs. When the students cited RPI’s Sign Policy, the officers told the students that “today’s a different story” because prospective students would be in attendance for Accepted Student Day, and that the change was “coming from the top.” This was recorded:

The presence of students who might agree to pay tuition to RPI appears to be the type of “extraordinary” situation meriting suspension of RPI’s promises of freedom of expression.

And then there’s the latest. After we wrote to RPI last month to remind them of their promises to protect students’ freedom of expression — and, more importantly, on the day of Jackson’s black-tie fundraiser — an RPI student’s time-lapse video captured what appears to be RPI employees removing “Save the Union” signs, but not other signs, just before dawn:

Other videos also appear to show RPI employees removing “Save the Union” signs that the students — by now well accustomed to the requirements of the Sign Policy — say were fully in compliance with RPI policy.

As we explain in our letter to RPI today, RPI’s policies grant administrators a level of discretion that cannot be squared with any meaningful protection of students’ freedom of expression. Even if every act taken by RPI under these policies were defensible — and they aren’t — policies that grant unfettered discretion to administrators will only increase student distrust. If RPI wants to build a better relationship with its students — and demonstrate the commitment to freedom of expression required to maintain its status as an accredited institution — it must start by reforming its policies and apologizing to the students whose freedom of expression it has denied.

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