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Protest Rules Protested

December 14, 2011

Following last month’s brutal police response to protests at the Universities of California at Berkeley and Davis, Mark G. Yudof, the system's president, issued a statement condemning the officers’ actions and welcoming nonviolent protest on the UC campuses.

“Free speech is part of the DNA of this university, and nonviolent protest has long been central to our history,” Yudof said. “It is a value we must protect with vigilance.”

But newly issued “protest guidelines” at the University of California at Riverside have students and faculty members there thinking that administrators didn’t get the memo.

Under the guidelines, events must, among other things: be planned two weeks to a month in advance, in conjunction with the dean of students’ office and in great detail (to address location, route, sound, management, etc.); have an staff member present; not include signs attached to “rigid sticks or poles”; and be evaluated with administrators after the fact. The guidelines also include rules on chalking, a method students commonly use to promote events or discourse on campus issues. Protesters are now supposed to “develop a proposal to include sample messaging, proposed locations, and a cleanup plan for review and approval” by administrators (acceptable locations are also limited). 

Riverside says the timing of the guidelines – made official Nov. 23, five days after police sparked outrage by pepper-spraying student protesters sitting peacefully along a Davis sidewalk – is coincidental, and that the rules are not intended as a means to quash spontaneous protests. But 861 people on and off the campus, in and out of California, are clearly concerned. They all signed a petition that’s been circulating since Dec. 6, demanding “the immediate withdrawal” of the guidelines by Riverside Chancellor Timothy P. White.

“In light of all of the police brutality, the really excessive force that’s been used…. I think this has really touched a nerve,” said Patricia Morton, an associate professor of art history at Riverside and co-sponsor of the petition. “I think this is, in a way, a sort of nice face that’s being put on the same sort of repressive policies, the same deep institutional desire to suppress dissent.”

White announced in a letter to the campus Tuesday that in response to the outcry, he will create a task force of students, faculty and staff to review the guidelines and recommend revisions. With final exams underway and winter break coming up, the group will be assembled over the coming weeks but won’t meet until the new year.

“Our goal is to be certain that we fully support the right to free speech and peaceful assembly on campus,” said White, who will chair the task force. “It is important to have our policies, procedures and guidelines comport with UC policy and applicable state and federal laws, and to be informed by best practice.  In regard to the latter, I consider it vital to establish solid and respectful lines of communication between event organizers and the university. It is in this spirit that I have initiated the review.”

While Morton, who is also chair of the Riverside Faculty Association, is pleased that the petition has elicited a response from the chancellor, she called his plan “completely inadequate.” Of particular concern is the fact that under White’s proposal, the guidelines will be in place during January’s meeting of the UC Board of Regents. The board canceled its November meetings after officials grew concerned that planned student protests could escalate into violence (students had said the protests would be peaceful). Unlike those meetings, the upcoming gathering is scheduled to take place at the Riverside campus, and UC students are again planning to protest tuition hikes.

“White has the power to rescind the guidelines while the review proceeds, which he has not done. He's resorted to a bureaucratic review dominated by the very parties that created the excessive restrictions on protest in the first place,” Morton said, adding that the response is “not a real statement of commitment to the students' right to free speech, assembly and protest.”

Having this kind of detail and so many requirements for regulations on protests is “a strange and unusual thing” for any major university, said Angus Johnston, a student activism historian and adjunct assistant history professor at the City University of New York’s Hostos Community College. The guidelines seem “extremely restrictive,” even for regular scheduled event regulations, said Johnston, who covered the student Occupy protests on his student activism blog.

“The idea that you would get approval for a protest two weeks in advance – it neglects the fact that in many cases, the event that you’re protesting might not yet have happened,” Johnston said. “By their nature, protests tend to be, in most cases, spontaneous.”

The guidelines provide a checklist “to make sure [a protest is] consistent with laws and UCR policies.” But at this point, it’s unclear the extent to which the guidelines will apply to, say, protests by the Occupy movement, which have been popping up on campuses across the country after being planned in a matter of days.

But James Grant, a university spokesman, said the guidelines “are not meant to respond to breaking-news kinds of situations” so much as they are for longer-term events. The university didn’t intend the guidelines as a blanket enforcement tool, he said.

“If tomorrow there was a high-profile takeover of some country and a group of students got together and wanted to rally and show their concern, it’s not as if we wouldn’t work with them,” Grant said. “The word ‘protest’ shouldn’t have been used, probably. It should have been more like ‘assembly.' ” (In his letter to the campus, White called the document “guidelines for protests and assemblies.”)

The revisions in themselves were not unusual, Grant said: the university periodically updates its policies, as most do. The new draft was part of a student affairs project that brought dozens of policies and procedures together on one page for “one-stop shopping,” he said. Grant also said he was “not aware of any real differences” in the new draft.

That doesn’t really matter to Guanyang Zhang, a Riverside graduate student who co-authored the petition. For Zhang, at issue is what they say now. “No matter how the guidelines were adjusted,” Zhang said, they’re “basically absurd.”

“It’s a very contradicting document,” Zhang said, referring to the guidelines’ opening statement: "Your voice matters…. Free speech is welcome here."

“What the guidelines suggest to me is that it’s not welcome here,” Zhang said. And he was similarly unmoved by White’s plan for review, and questioned why, if the guidelines won’t apply to spontaneous protests, they don’t say so.

John Gust, a Riverside graduate student who co-sponsored the petition, said many students are upset about the rules. But he also worries that some would hesitate to be on record opposing administrators.

“To a certain extent, I think the way that [administrators] have clamped down on free speech over time, making it a bad thing, makes people not want to put their name on something like this,” Gust said. “It’s, in a sense, generating a list of people the university should look out for.”
 

 

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