Free Speech Under University Policy: Can protests be governed?

Isabelle Costa, Scarlet Staff

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On the morning of October 22nd, 2018, an email from President David Angel’s Office was sent out to the student body, which announced Clark University’s institution of the “Interim Protests and Demonstration Policy.” The “Interim Protests and  Demonstration Policy” relates to the right to exercise free speech on campus property, and will stay in effect until the draft is formalized by the “Clark University Commision on Speech and Community Values.” This policy formally outlines regulations and guidelines for on-campus demonstrations and non-violent protests, including how and where students are allowed to physically demonstrate without disrupting the daily operations of Clark University. The “Commision on Speech and Community Values” includes former and current Clark students as well as University officials and professors, who were originally assembled to craft the Demonstration Policy in the summer of 2017.

As the name suggests, the “Interim Protests and Demonstration Policy” applies to the individual right to assemble and/or protest within the parameters of University policy. This includes “time, place, and manner restrictions” which states “the University may impose…(time, place, and manner) restrictions on exercise of the right of self-expression, to preserve the safe and orderly operation of the campus” ( “Interim…Policy”, p. 1). The relatively vague wording paired with the caveat that “the University Police and other university officials have the right to intervene during any demonstration, protest, or speech when they deem violence, intimidation, or harassment to be imminent” makes it difficult to tell exactly how much power this policy grants administration over student protests. Primarily, this document appears to give Clark officials the power to intervene in any demonstration that they deem disruptive to traffic on campus, classes or University sponsored events, as well as any assembly that compromises safety.

The “Clark University Statement on Freedom of Expression” was sent out along with the actual draft of the policy as an official explanation of how such a policy upholds community values while ensuring the physical safety of staff and students. It opens with the following quote;

“This statement of principle articulates Clark University’s ideals relating to freedom of expression and academic freedom, respect for each other within our campus community, and freedom from harassment and intimidation” and goes on to specify that “We also recognize that the right to free speech coexists alongside other rights described in our university policies and afforded under state, federal, and local laws.” The creation of a formal free-speech policy is framed as beneficial to both the administration and students, a sentiment echoed by President Angel when I reached out to him via email for more information.

He considers these written guidelines necessary because “it is appropriate that all members of our community know where the University stands on these issues and how questions and concerns will be handled.”  In his original October email announcement, Angel wrote that “such written policies protect all members of our community and also serve to reaffirm our core values” as justification for adopting the interim policy before a finalized document is put in place.  Furthermore, he reported during our email exchange that, “we (the University) have not had written guidelines (governing free speech on campus), rather there have been informal understandings based on past practice” prior to the institution of the interim Demonstration Policy.

Clark University prides itself on fostering an environment of self-expression and activism, particularly when it comes to the school’s image and advertising, so the management of on-campus protests is an important component of upholding institutional values.  I see the “Interim Protests and Demonstration Policy,” as an attempt to balance the University’s interests as an institution; namely providing a safe and equal environment for all members of the Clark community and minimizing disruptions to academics and maintenance, while upholding the right to free speech. However, this draft also raises troubling questions surrounding the potential suppression of student voices. The right to protest on campus is only extended to faculty and students at Clark University, not Worcester residents. Was this truly created with the intention of safeguarding free speech, and, if so, will this policy actually be mobilized to protect the right to demonstrate, or will it simply make it easier for the University to shut down protests?

These are necessary questions that the Clark student body as a whole should have a say in; I believe that this policy has a lot of potential to encourage activism on and around campus, as well as limiting hate speech, but this is not a guaranteed outcome. Eric Barrese, the Undergraduate Student Council President, and member of the “Commision on Speech and Community Values” addressed some of these concerns and provided his input on the policy as an undergraduate student. He specifically called attention to the need for more student involvement in the policy writing protest, explaining that the commision wanted more feedback from the Clark Community, but very few people actually chose to participate until later in the process.

“Because of this factor,” Eric said, “I am in favor of extending the interim policy and addressing the concerns that came later… One is to incorporate some equity into the policy whereas hate speech is differentiated from protest speech. No one wants right-wing extremists on campus holding onto the campus space, but protests that acknowledge oppression should be able to operate and be mobile in their own fashion.”

When I asked Eric about the input he personally provided to the commission as well as his own opinion on the draft, he replied with, “I’m still grappling with the notion of a protest policy because protests to me seem to go against policy.” This deeply resonated with me, as I have been struggling to conceptualize an institutional policy that is designed to govern activities that are, by definition, organized acts of disobedience. Eric’s commentary on the “Interim Protests and Demonstration Policy” brings attention to the need for us to speak up as students and strive to take a more active role in the policy-making process, particularly at the administrative level.