Left-leaning students at Hampton University have felt for some time that campus administrators favor conservative groups and limit the free speech of liberal ones. Their argument has gained steam -- and faculty members’ support -- over the past month, as seven students who helped organize a gathering opposing the Bush administration face a hearing Friday that could lead to their expulsion.
Students on about 200 campuses across the country participated November 2 in an event sponsored by the nonprofit group World Can't Wait -- Drive Out the Bush Regime, which encouraged students to walk out of classes to signal dissatisfaction with the Bush administration. Student organizers at Hampton didn’t want to “encourage people just to stay in bed sleeping” that day, says Aaron Ray, a sophomore.
So they created fliers, focused on Hurricane Katrina, Sudan, homophobia and other issues, which they planned on handing out at the university’s student center.
“We just wanted to talk to students and encourage them to think about what’s going on in our world and how they can make a contribution,” says Ray. “The whole purpose was to get the student body aware and take intelligent action.”
About 30 minutes into their distribution effort, which Ray notes was peaceful, campus police officers showed up, saying that administrators viewed the activity as violating university policy. Officers took down student identification information from 7 of the approximately 20 organizers. Students also say the officers shot video footage.
Ray and six of his peers have since received letters from the administration inviting them to expulsion hearings that state: "Specifically, you were observed posting unauthorized materials, which advocated student participation in a protest activity that had not been registered or approved. Some of the materials advocated actions considered to be a disruption of the academic activities of Hampton University (specifically 'Nov. 2 student walkout; no school.').”
Bennie G. McMorris, the historically black university’s chief student affairs officer, released a statement last week expanding on the charges. “The issue is not about the ‘Bush Administration, genocide in the Sudan, AIDS awareness and homophobia,’” he stated. “The issue is compliance with university policies and procedures. The university certainly permits peaceful protests; however, all policies and procedures must be adhered to by students as stated in the Hampton University Official Student Handbook (2004 Edition).”
University policy says that “the distribution, posting, affixing with adhesives, staples or other means, of unauthorized handbills or advertisements on University Property is strictly prohibited. Students identified and found to be involved in such activities will in addition to having all materials confiscated, be reported to the [Vice President] of Student Affairs for disciplinary action.”
Another sophomore, Brian Ogilvie, an organizer who does not face expulsion, calls the charges “ridiculous.” He notes that several student groups -- including fraternities -- regularly pass out materials with “scantily clad women” portrayed on them, advertising parties and alcohol -- without penalty. “If they’re going to enforce obscure rules, then they have to be consistent,” he says.
Ogilvie sees the current situation as part of a larger pattern of administrators’ disdain for liberal groups. For instance, a campus chapter of Amnesty International, he says, has had trouble gaining formal recognition from the university -- recognition that would have allowed members of the group to hand out fliers in compliance with the university’s policies. For the past three years, the former director of student activities “lost our paperwork,” he reports. Local Amnesty officials have contacted the university regarding this situation.
Students interviewed Tuesday said that pro-business and conservative groups seem to have an easier time being recognized on campus. A university spokeswoman said that all groups are given equal opportunities at Hampton, regardless of political ideology.
On Tuesday, several administrators, including McMorris and the deans Woodson Hopewell and Jewel Long, did not respond to requests for comment on what might happen at this week’s hearings.
One adjunct professor in the university’s journalism school, Wil LaVeist, has been especially vocal about his concerns. “Hampton is a private school and they’re allowed to keep their rules,” he says. “But some of this directly violates student freedom of speech. As a journalism professor and columnist, I can’t tolerate that.
“Students may not have followed the policies perfectly,” he adds. “But they could have been reminded of the rules before expulsion was brought up. I don’t think this is really a message that Hampton wants to send.”
While saying he is proud of the university and would encourage his own children to enroll there, LaVeist says that this situation is teaching young people the opposite of what a college education should. “If you can’t protest in college without getting expelled, what’s going to happen when you get out in the real world?” he asks. “College is about challenging the rules.”
Meanwhile, Ray anxiously awaits his hearing. He and the other organizers plan to hire a lawyer. “I am very nervous,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Would he have chosen to attend Hampton if he knew this was the path he’d end up taking? “Yeah, honestly, I would,” he says. “This is a place that needs change, and it’s people like us who will do it.”