Sit-in Over a Student Group's Suspension

June 5, 2008

A sit-in by a student group at Evergreen State College is in its second week, with students and administrators at odds over the group's suspension and whether the college violated the students' free speech.

The Evergreen chapter of Students for a Democratic Society was suspended by administrators at the Olympia, Wash., college last March. The group had planned to hold a panel discussion entitled “Resisting the war at home and abroad,” followed by a anti-war music festival. Evergreen officials asked the group not to hold the event, citing a moratorium on concerts after a February 15 concert on campus ended in a riot.

When the group held the event anyway, college officials suspended it until January 2009 and put it on probation until that March. After an appeal, the punishment was reduced to suspension until next fall, with reinstatement on probation until January 2009. After the appeal, students organized a sit-in on May 21 in the hallway outside the office of the vice president for student affairs, Art Costantino. It has lasted ever since.

Officials of the student group say free speech is at issue, asserting that the event was canceled because of its political content.

Although there had been a concert moratorium in place during the event, other concerts that had been planned before the moratorium had been allowed to proceed, said Kteeo Olejnik, a member of the student group. Olejnik also said that the university gave shifting reasons for why it opposed the event. Originally, it was supposed to be a benefit for Carlos Arredondo, whose son was killed in Iraq and who is now an anti-war activist. After Evergreen officials said that campus rules prohibit public resources from supporting outside groups, Olejnik said the group altered the nature of the event. The group also changed its plan to have the Olympia Islamic Center provide food at the event, which Evergreen officials said also violated college policy.

Finally, the college said the event could not go on because it was a concert, Olejnik said. The group argued the panel and concert were separate events and offered to cancel the concert. However, she said, the university declined and canceled both events.

The student group's leaders decided to hold the events anyway because they believed they had been scrapped because of their political content. Although the punishment for staging the events was lessened after the appeal, it wasn't gotten rid of,” she said. That prompted the sit-in.

Jason Wettstein, media and community relations manager and spokesperson for Evergreen, insisted that the cancellation of the event and eventual punishment against the group “had nothing to do with speech.” The group was suspended because it held its events on college property without permission, he said.

He conceded that other concerts took place despite the moratorium, but said the problem with the Students for a Democratic Society events was how they were marketed. On the campus, Wettstein said, the event was advertised as a panel discussion. However, off campus, it was promoted as a concert and benefit, in apparent violation of restrictions on a public institution.

“The college could not get a firm grasp of the nature of the event,” he said.

Negotiations with the university began Monday and are continuing, Olejnik said. Among the student group's demands are the rehiring, along with lost pay, for a student who was fired from her campus job, Olejnik said, because she joined the sit-in; the immediate reinstatement of the group with an apology from the university; and the redrafting of the policy for how a student organization loses its status to be written by students and the student activities office.

Wettstein said he could not go into the specifics of the negotiations but said the college hopes to resolve the matter “constructively.”

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