Students say UMass policy on rallies troubling, though rarely enforced

  • John Stewart-Racicot, a UMass student, writes "We are all human" on the student union wall during a protest at the Student Union in February. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2018

AMHERST — In the wake of a lawsuit claiming that its policy on demonstrations is unconstitutional, the University of Massachusetts is affirming its support of the First Amendment right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

“Those familiar with our campus know that rallies, speeches and protests are a common occurrence here,” spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said in a statement. “The university’s policies regarding such events are in accordance with the United States Supreme Court’s long-standing acceptance of content-neutral restrictions on the time, place and manner of such speech.”

The policy reads:

“Outdoor speeches and rallies during class hours may be held only on the west side (main entrance) of the Student Union Building, and shall be limited to one (1) hour in length, from noon to 1:00 P.M. Such events must not obstruct the free flow of traffic in and out of the building.”

That policy is now being challenged by undergraduate Nicholas Consolini and the campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty, a nationwide libertarian group formed following the 2008 presidential campaign of Ron Paul. Listed as “strategic partners” on the group’s website are prominent national libertarian organizations, including advocacy groups and think tanks funded by the influential billionaire libertarian donors Charles and David Koch.

The plaintiffs in the case against UMass Amherst are represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian group based in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The lawsuit against UMass Amherst has been a long time in coming, said Caleb Dalton, legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom.

“That policy unconstitutionally limits how all students express themselves on campus,” Dalton said.

Dalton said restricting the right to rally to a one-hour window, and to a specific location outside the Student Union building, means students have to fear sanctions under the student code of conduct if they don’t abide by that rule.

“The university is turning the marketplace of ideas into a marketplace of fear,” Dalton said.

While there was no precipitating event, Dalton said the alliance sent a letter to UMass five years ago and students have talked to the administration about the policy, which has been amended. But the university is aware of continued problems with the policy, outlined in a Daily Collegian editorial last fall, and has refused to make any additional adjustments, Dalton said.

‘Substantial opportunity’

Blaguszewski said the university’s policies “provide a substantial opportunity for public speech while allowing the campus community to continue to conduct academic, business and other activities.” He said several university documents detail protesters’ rights and responsibilities, citing in particular the “Picketing Code” and the “Regulations for use of Property.”

The policy, Dalton said, differs from one at the University of Tennessee, for example, where the entire campus is a place where rallies can be held.

Dalton said the alliance worked on behalf of an unrecognized chapter at Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College last year after its members were told by campus policy they couldn’t pass out copies of the Constitution to students, faculty and staff.

It seems that protests at UMass, however, have taken place outside the designated area without repercussion, such as a demonstration organized by the graduate student union in October outside the administration building. Those protesters eventually visited offices in that building, and staged a sit-in outside Dean Barbara Krauthamer’s office.

One exception is an instance of 15 protesters removed from the Whitmore Administration Building by campus police and charged with trespassing on April 12, 2016. The protesters were calling for UMass to divest from fossil fuel investments.

According to Blaguszewski, the 15 protesters had been in the building “for some time,” and were arrested after warnings from campus police. The building had also closed to the public before the protesters were removed around 9 p.m., Blaguszewski said in an email correspondence.

“To the best of my knowledge, no students have been prevented from protesting on campus,” Blaguszewski said.

Students on campus Thursday expressed differing views about the policy.

Emily Ishak, a sophomore from Longmeadow, said she has seen students protesting the policies of President Trump away from the designated area by the Student Union building. She has also seen candlelight vigils outside of the time the school allows for rallies. In both cases, she said, the events went uninterrupted by campus officials or police.

“I think it’s strange that it’s one hour at midday to rally, and not many people know about it. So, I don’t think you could be blamed if you did rally outside that time,” Ishak said.

Jack Eccles, a junior from Melrose who is vice president of the UMass Democrats, also said that rallies that break the school’s official policy are commonplace, and go undisturbed by school authorities.

“I think there’s a culture around it that that policy wouldn’t be enforced, so we’d feel comfortable rallying,” Eccles said.

Eccles stated that he has heard a variety of political views and personal opinions expressed freely on campus, and at different places and times of day. He described the situation as “a difference between procedure and practice.”

Eccles said UMass Democrats, a group affiliated with the national College Democrats of America, is fervently against the policy, calling it “completely egregious.”

“As a political group on campus, being able to express our views and First Amendment rights is very important,” Eccles said.

Not enforced

Similarly, Alex Gearty, a senior from Concord and president of the UMass College Republicans, voiced opposition to the policy, while also expressing the belief that the policy is unenforced.

“It’s not enforced that I’ve heard of or seen in the four years I’ve been here,” Gearty said. “I’ve never heard of a rally getting canceled or shut down for any reason other than the group itself doing it.”

Gearty also said the university should get rid of the policy, and there is a pattern of suppressing speech on college campuses in the U.S. Conservative students, she said, are more likely targeted for their views than liberal students.

“I think there’s a real issue with free speech on college campuses in general,” Gearty said. “What our nation needs as a whole is just to talk to each other more instead of screaming.”

Kate Froburg, 22, of Andover, graduated from UMass in 2017. She frequently attended student-led rallies while at UMass, and most recently attended a September demonstration protesting Trump’s immigration policies.

Froburg said most rallies did abide by the policy — outside of the Student Union building from noon to 1 p.m. However, when a rally lasted past 1 p.m., nobody would tell the students to leave, she said.

Following the policy, Froburg said, created problems for her: She was unable to attend certain rallies at the designated time because she, like other students, was usually in class during the middle of the day.

“It brings up the question: Is it really academics or are they not trying to have massive crowds outside of the Student Union?” Froburg said.

Abhishek Roy, a 30-year-old graduate student from India, is someone who supports the policy. To Roy, academic instruction is too important for the university to risk disruption by rallying students.

“Any type of restriction I support,” Roy said.

Roy also said the policy gives the university control over when and where large groups meet, and said the university should extend its control to prevent what he sees as hateful groups or speakers from talking.

“It’s good and there should be some sort of filtering mechanism, so if there was an inflammatory rally it could be prevented,” Roy said.

The university’s Picketing Code is not mentioned in the lawsuit, though it also contains provisions on rallying, including that demonstrations shouldn’t interfere with university business in an office or classroom.

That code also states that, “There shall be no interference with demonstrations on the grounds of content of speech, except for any speech or demonstration which incites immediate, violent action and represents a clear and present danger to the campus community.”