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University Bans on Student Protests Threaten Freedom of Expression

Universities on both sides of the Atlantic have taken steps to curtail, if not to outright ban, students from protesting.

Universities on both sides of the Atlantic have taken steps to curtail, if not to outright ban, students from protesting. As of early December, the University of London has banned student protests for six months after two days of unrest that led to 41 arrests. In New York City, two universities closed the semester by issuing restrictions for how and where students can protest as well as, in some cases, limiting how much faculty can participate in protests during working hours.

Students in London have been protesting over rising university fees, cuts to worker benefits and a growing trend of privatization in higher education. Protests including a sit-in on December 5 had been held over alleged police brutality towards demonstrators as captured in video footage. The police contend that they had received “no official complaints” about officers’ behavior but at least one onlooker commented that “it all sort of reached a head when they started kettling people” and that the police were “almost just looking for a fight.”

Among those arrested was Oscar Webb, the editor of the London Student newspaper; he had been covering the protests and has been supported by the National Union of Journalists.

University of London administrators are calling the six-month ban on student protests a “last straw” to curb what it has been referring to as “a campaign of aggression and intimidation” during which staff had been “threatened, abused and in some cases injured” and, in particular, “senior members of the university staff, including the Vice-Chancellor, [were] prevented from leaving their offices.” Students have been informed that they “have no right to conduct a ‘sit-in’ or take possession of any areas of the campus” as there has been a “serious incursion upon university property and a serious interference with liberty and freedom of senior university personnel.”

The restrictions on student protests at Cooper Union and City College in New York City occur at the end of a year in which students occupied, and shut down, campus buildings. Students at Cooper Union, a privately funded institution in the East Village of Manhattan, occupied President Jamshed Bharucha’s office for months, outraged over a new tuition policy. A year later, university administrators have presented them with a new “code of conduct” that forbids the “deliberate or knowing disruption of the free flow of pedestrian traffic on Cooper Union premises” as well as “behavior that disturbs the peace, academic study or sleep of others on or off campus.” Any communication that “disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the Cooper Union” is discussed in a section on bullying and intimidation.

City College is a part of the City University of New York (CUNY), which has proposed its own set of policies about “expressive activity.” As the New York Times details, a draft issued in June says that “free speech and assembly [are] to be subject to the needs for public order”; restricts “gatherings and the distribution of leaflets to approved areas and times”; requires sponsors of planned protests with as few as 25 students to receive the college’s approval at least 24 hours in advance; and forbids faculty members from “taking part in protests during working hours.” College officials have also reserved the right to “seek the immediate intervention of public safety officers or external law enforcement” in the event of protests that pose “an immediate threat to persons or property.”

Not surprisingly, students (and faculty) at both Cooper Union and City College have responded with “withering notice.” “If CUNY is to be an intellectually vibrant university, it must recognize that ‘expressive activity’ is a vital part of campus life, not a danger to be confined to narrow limits,” says Barbara Bowen, the president of the union that represents CUNY’s faculty and staff.

In an op-ed about British authorities’ response to the student protests, activist Tony Gosling writes that Prime Minister David Cameron is doing nothing less than trying to gag student dissent. While he has been in office, “Britain’s centers of learning are deteriorating from colleges where young people are educated into loathsome institutions where they are told what to think.”

At New York’s Columbia University, protest is recognized as a valid form of expression. Based on the new bans and restrictions on student protests, the administrations of the University of London, Cooper Union and City College (and Cameron himself) are turning universities into the “new battleground for free speech.” With a new semester starting soon, they should be prepared for quite a few more lessons not only from faculty but from students about why, in institutions of higher learning, freedom of expression and freedom of speech are and will be protected and protested over.

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