Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute enforced a non-existent policy to suppress student critics, then wrote the policy

September 24, 2019

Over the past several years, the administration of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — a private institution in upstate New York — has been criticized for suppressing student detractors who say the administration has been wresting control of a long-running student union. That criticism has come not only from FIRE and RPI students and faculty, but also from the local branch of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the local newspaper, which implored RPI’s administration to do some “soul-searching” about its approach to students’ freedom of expression. It has not done so, instead choosing to create a new policy that makes expression at RPI even more “controlled” by administrators.

RPI had gone to great lengths to deter and harass its student critics, including repeatedly denying permission to hold peaceful demonstrations, erecting fences to prevent those demonstrations, tearing down signs critical of the administration, hiring local police to film demonstrators, and charging students with “solicitation” for the offense of handing out a letter without permission.

RPI has previously claimed that its students need permission, in advance, to hand out flyers or letters anywhere on campus. This is because, according to RPI’s lawyer, the university wants a “controlled environment” for speech:

But, as FIRE pointed out, there was no such policy — and even if it existed, requiring students to get permission from an administrator to hand out a flyer on campus cannot be squared with a commitment to freedom of expression. (Because RPI is a private institution, the First Amendment does not compel it to recognize students’ expressive rights, but RPI nevertheless promises to do so.) The NYCLU went further, questioning why RPI’s administration was enforcing policies that did not appear to exist.

As the NYCLU and FIRE charged, RPI’s administration had been enforcing a policy that did not actually exist. Despite the litany of warnings from civil liberties organizations, RPI has now created it. 

In an email to students, RPI’s Dean of Students announced that it had added a new “Solicitation and Distribution” policy in order to “reflect existing processes for the distribution of materials on campus.”

The policy provides, in relevant part:

Only Institute administrative unit or departments, and recognized student organizations with express permission, may conduct fundraising or solicitation activities on the Rensselaer campus, or distribute materials on campus property, including but not limited to the residence halls. No outside organization or person may solicit or distribute materials on the campus.

As written, this policy means that students may distribute written materials on campus only if they (1) are part of a recognized student organization and (2) get “express permission.” 

Both of these aspects are troubling. Individual students cannot hand out anything. As for unrecognized student organizations or movements like the “Save the Union” campaign? Also out of luck. Yet it makes no difference for public safety purposes whether a group is recognized or not. 

The policy’s requirement that students get permission is also troubling. There is no compelling reason for an institution to require an individual student to get permission to hand out a letter on a sidewalk. RPI knows how to craft a narrower policy regulating expressive conduct — its sign policy provides: “Signs may be carried as long as they do not disrupt classes, traffic, or other educational and administrative functions.” So RPI students can hold up a flyer, but need permission to hand it to someone else. 

Even if there were a compelling reason for this new policy, the policy provides no guidance whatsoever as to when administrators should grant or deny a student organization’s request to distribute information. RPI has unashamedly refused to grant permission to its critics in the past and there is no reason to believe its leadership has suddenly adopted a nobler, principled approach to its critics.

That’s why we’ve written to RPI’s leadership — again. Institutions of higher education sometimes maintain policies that fall short of their commitments to freedom of expression. RPI is the rare institution that, having learned that its policies are defective, consciously chooses to draft and impose a worse policy it knows to be at odds with its glowing promises of freedom of expression. Its administration says RPI values freedom of expression, but its actions — at every opportunity — reveal that claim to be false. 

Here’s our letter:


Schools:  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Cases:  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Security Officers Oust Flyer-Distributing Students from Sidewalk, Citing Eminent Domain