University explains policy on protesting

May 16, 2011, 2:05 a.m.

The last three weeks have brought a slew of protests to campus, including the April 29 protest of the Faculty Senate’s decision to recognize ROTC and last Wednesday’s rally for janitors set to lose their jobs. However, some students have regarded the University’s policy on campus disruptions with confusion.

Protestors in two rallies organized by the student group Stanford Says No To War (SSNW) were frustrated after being interrupted on two separate occasions at the Law School. The students sought to rally against appearances by UC-Berkeley professor John Yoo on April 22 and political science professor and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on May 6.

“We’re trying to create an open forum of discussion in a non-disruptive, non-hostile way,” said Josh Schott ‘14.

By not allowing students to do so, Stanford is “not living up to that policy,” he added.

In an email to The Daily, University spokesperson Lisa Lapin clarified Stanford’s policy toward on-campus protests. The University officially designates White Plaza as its free speech area and forbids disruptions elsewhere that disturb University events or officials.

In addition, Stanford asks to be notified about formal protests and gives approval for some protests to occur outside of White Plaza. Students were given permission to stage the ROTC protest in front of the Law School, but the University did not receive any other registrations for protests in that location.

The SSNW-organized protests opposed the appearances of Yoo and Rice because of both speakers’ relationship with torture.

“We were protesting that the University was inviting individuals who have legalized torture and therefore are war criminals,” said Schott, who participated in both protests. “By doing this, the University is legitimizing torture.”

In order to convey this point to event attendees, Schott and others posted and distributed flyers at the door to the Law School auditorium, where the speeches took place. They were all escorted out of the building and were asked to join a protest outside, where others were holding a rally.

Schott said his group had officially registered to attend the speeches and believed that it had a right to be inside the building.

Judicial Affairs policy states that students cannot “prevent or disrupt the effective carrying out of a University function or approved activity,” like the Law School events. However, Schott said he made a point not to disturb the event, claiming that he and his colleagues only sought to inform speech attendees.

“Any [student] can go out and start handing out flyers in any building they want to; that’s not a violation of the rules,” he said.

Schott did note that, after talking to building managers, the group’s flyers were put back up on Law School walls. Still, the group was forced to leave the building.

Lapin said the ban on unregistered protests extends to the events themselves but mentioned that she was unaware of the recent SSNW protests.

“No one [is] allowed to protest inside an event,” Lapin said.

Barriers to free speech at Stanford have been challenged several times. In late January, a report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit dedicated to free speech, named Stanford a “red-light” school for its free speech restrictions. The report cited limited access to free speech policies, including a password barrier that only allowed full access to individuals with a SUNet ID.

Following FIRE’s ranking, the password protection on these policies was removed, and FIRE now lists Stanford as a “yellow-light” school. Still, this ranking describes Stanford as having “at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application,” according to the FIRE website. The policy on free speech in White Plaza is cited as one such ambiguous policy.

Students have also taken action by starting “Free Speech Fridays,” an hour-long open microphone session to allow students to publicly share their ideas every Friday from noon to 1 p.m. in White Plaza. That period is the only hour on weekdays in which the University permits amplified sound in White Plaza, as long as students make a prior reservation with Student Activities and Leadership.

University policy is written to protect these free speech rights.

“The university setting is exactly the place for the exchange of ideas and open discourse,” Lapin said. “To censor debate or exclude viewpoints would be contrary to the mission of the University, which values freedom of expression and upholds freedom of speech.”

Schott contended this viewpoint, citing an earlier incident where protestors passed out flyers about Rice in front of the Stanford Bookstore and were told to leave, because the University is private property.

By definitions from Student Activities and Leadership, the Bookstore opens onto White Plaza.

“It’s a climate of trying to keep the students quiet,” Schott said. “The students aren’t trying to disrupt; the students aren’t trying to create a hostile environment. The students are just trying to disseminate information on who the person is who is signing the books or giving the lecture.”

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