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

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 institution’s administration is usurping power long held by the Rensselaer Student Union, which has been operated by students for some 125 years. In response, students organized via reddit and Twitter, and they put together a website dedicated to bringing attention to their cause.

But when they attempted to take their movement offline and onto campus, they ran into resistance from RPI’s administration.

In an effort to abide by RPI’s policies—which require that students planning protests notify the Dean of Students Office seven days in advance—the students provided notice eight days beforehand that they would protest outside the building in which President Jackson’s biannual town hall meeting would take place on March 30, 2016.

But Acting Dean of Students Cary Dresher denied the students’ request in a letter, stating that the “request for a peaceful demonstration” was “not approved” because it was during the same time as President Jackson’s town hall. The protest, he wrote, would “disrupt the normal operation of” RPI:

As the President’s Town Hall Meetings are held twice a year in order to provide members of the Rensselaer community the opportunity to learn about initiatives affecting the community, the expected number of participants and requested length of the peaceful demonstration may be construed as disruptive to classes and operation of the educational enterprise.

This is nonsense. While RPI is a private institution not bound by the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to peaceful assembly, the policy cited by RPI is a promise to its students that they have similar rights to those enjoyed by students on public campuses. RPI should keep its promises. Interpreting the policy’s language to mean RPI’s institutional operations are disrupted whenever students outside an event aren’t paying undivided attention to a speech inside an event is unreasonable.

In any event, students pledged to carry on with the demonstration even without the institution’s permission, with assistance from Professor Bill Puka’s announcement that he would hold a class on the history of peaceful demonstrations—a class conveniently located in the same place as the intended protest and during the time the students had proposed for the protest. After all, how could a class interfere with RPI’s educational mission?

Asked about Professor Puka’s class and whether RPI would intervene, in a recorded conversation excerpted below, an RPI administrator said the class was “not sanctioned” and “not authorized” and that it “has all the intent to be the protest that was initially denied in the request.” He would say nothing further, though, leaving unclear whether RPI would intervene:

The protest, however, went on as planned. Gregory Bartell, one of the students whose application to hold the protest was denied, told the audience:

I submitted a form to have a demonstration in the first place at roughly the same location. It was denied. … This whole thing started because of that. Everybody is here because of that, because it was denied. If they wouldn’t have, we probably wouldn’t be here in as large as numbers.

He just might have a point. If you’d like to make sure students show up to protest, tell them they can’t protest, and they’ll show up:

And so will the media. RPI, according to some reports, attempted to ban members of the media from the demonstration. Like its attempts to prevent the protest, this proved to be a failure as well:

According to Inside Higher Ed, President Jackson announced she would suspend the search for a new director of the Rensselaer Student Union—a search students had objected to—and that she respected the students’ rights to protest peacefully. But President Jackson’s comments were also concerning:

“I could technically say that having this class turn into a protest -- I could say that they technically violated the university rules,” Jackson said. “But we’re not going to do anything about that.”

Praising yourself for not further attempting to prevent student protests, while claiming to respect students’ rights to demonstrate peacefully? These are irreconcilable notions.

Reached for comment, Suzanne Morris, the Deputy Chief of Staff and Executive Assistant to President Jackson, declined to discuss RPI’s basis for denying the students’ demonstration request but confirmed to FIRE that “[t]here will be no sanctions or discipline” for students or faculty as a result of the protests.

RPI did not respond to questions about whether the protest actually disrupted its operations—the very basis on which RPI denied the students’ request to hold the demonstration in the first place.

While RPI’s after-the-fact confirmation is welcome, students never should have had to wonder whether they might be punished for attending a peaceful demonstration.

(Photo courtesy of reddit user bluemellophone.)

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