Demonstration policies should be clear and consistent
We often crave clarity on University policy, and this clarity is especially necessary when dealing with questions of students’ rights to expression. This became apparent last week when the Young Americans for Liberty constructed and, responding to a request from the University, dismantled a mock Soviet gulag set up as part of a demonstration commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The demonstration included students dressed up as Soviet guards or prisoners and a faux gulag made of two-by-fours and chicken wire. Participants played the Soviet national anthem and gave speeches against capitalism and Washington University, a “tool of the capitalists.” We found the gulag offensive on all counts, which was its aim in trying to show “the realities of socialism,” according to Dirk Doebler, president of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL). The language in the speeches was irate but unclear, and we felt that the demonstration trivialized and misrepresented the actual human rights violations that took place at Soviet gulags.
But while YAL could have handled their message better, so could the University. YAL has the right to free speech on this campus, and the University must ensure that its communication about policies is crystal clear. Multiple University administrators used multiple reasons for telling the group to take down their structure, including an art installation policy, an amplified noise policy and, finally, the idea that the structure itself was not safe. But Doebler asserts that the group filled out paperwork beforehand, reserving the space in front of the Women’s Building for the protest. They checked the amplified-sound policy, as well as the banner and ad policies. After not finding any outdoor policies that restricted building—other than a regulation that applied specifically to Bowles Plaza—the group built their structure.
The official position of the administration, according to an e-mail sent out the day after the demonstration, is that the gulag was dismantled because of safety reasons and because the students had not alerted the administration that they were planning on a constructed installation. But the administrators did not approach the group until three hours into its demonstration. And if safety was the administration’s main concern, we have to ask why the University deemed it unsafe to construct the gulag and unsafe to keep it erected but nevertheless told the group to take down the gulag themselves instead of charging them and hiring professionals to dismantle it.
We understand that regulations regarding protests are necessary and advisable. We have no problem with rules regarding the safety of structures on campus—in fact, we appreciate the regulatory efforts that the University has made toward making ThurtenE construction safer. Our confusion stems from the University’s paradoxical concern over the students’ safety and the fact that a firm regulation was never invoked. Video shows a University official admitting that he cannot explain where to find the art installation policy. The administrator who shut down the demonstration is heard on camera saying that she does not have proof of an art installation regulation on her, but is willing to show the student in her office or send the policy via e-mail. Doebler asked that a copy of these regulations be e-mailed to him but, has not yet received a copy.
This is where the real problem lies: Students need easy access to policies that affect their lives on campus, especially those that could be potentially be interpreted to block their rights of free speech.
When asked if the students had a right to be there, one administrator answered, “We’ll see.” The existence of a right should not be contingent on the safety of the structure that seeks to manifest it, and students should have the right to demonstrate regardless of the political nature of their protest. If student demonstrations are to be governed by rules and regulations, these policies need to be easily accessible, and the University administration must be able and willing to explain them.