TROY, N.Y., Oct. 12, 2017 — In the latest salvo fired in a long-running dispute over control of the student union, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute administrators have again banned student demonstrations — this time forbidding dissent during this weekend’s homecoming celebration.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to the private university earlier this week to demand that RPI end its blanket ban on student demonstrations planned for this weekend.
In a stark illustration of its intent to keep out dissenting student voices, this week the administration erected a fence across wide swaths of the campus. The fence effectively prohibits students from even approaching the building where President Shirley Ann Jackson is hosting a black-tie event for alumni and donors Friday afternoon.
“Rensselaer promises its students the freedom to express their views,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Adam Steinbaugh. “But that promise apparently comes with a big asterisk: It doesn’t apply on some weekends, when it’s inconvenient, or when the university might be criticized in front of donors.”
The dispute centers around what some students and alumni 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 organization 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.
RPI explicitly promises that its students will enjoy freedom of speech and assembly, as they are “citizen[s] of the nation at large, and [RPI] shall not impede or obstruct students in the exercise of their fundamental rights as citizens.” Yet the institute requires students to ask administrators’ permission seven days in advance to hold a peaceful demonstration — permission administrators have now twice denied when facing demonstrations criticizing the institution. Though RPI is a private institution and not bound by the First Amendment, it must uphold the promises it makes to students.
Nevertheless, RPI student Bryan Johns followed the procedure. More than two weeks in advance of Jackson’s event, Johns requested permission to demonstrate against the administration’s actions, which he and other students perceive as undermining the union’s independence. Administrators flatly refused his request, telling Johns in a letter that they would not approve any demonstrations scheduled for Oct. 12–14. According to Travis Apgar, assistant vice president for student life and dean of students, the peaceful demonstration would pose a “disruption” and the institute’s security team would be fully occupied.
“RPI had an opportunity — which it still has — to work with students to find a time and place for their voices to be heard,” said Steinbaugh. “Instead, they’ve erected a fence. While administrators have fenced off part of the campus, students aren’t allowed to demonstrate in the open, unused space. That is indefensible — pun intended.”
The institute has a checkered past with free expression.
In March 2016, Jackson’s administration similarly denied students’ request to hold a peaceful demonstration on the basis that it was at the same time as her twice-annual speech. A tenured professor circumvented the decision by hosting a “teach-in” at the same time and location as the planned protest. Hundreds of demonstrators — including students, faculty, staff and alumni — participated. Jackson ominously said she could shut down the “teach-in,” but stopped short of taking further action: “I could technically say that having this class turn into a protest — I could say that they technically violated the university rules,” she said.
In FIRE’s Spotlight database, the institution earns a “red light” rating, which indicates it has policies which “clearly and substantially” restrict freedom of speech.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.
Daniel Burnett, Communications Manager, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Shirley Ann Jackson, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: 518-276-6211; email@example.com
Travis Apgar, Assistant Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: 518-276-6266; firstname.lastname@example.org