Students and university clash on free speech

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While students at private institutions enjoy many luxuries, these students are not always afforded the same level of First Amendment protection as students at public universities. In choosing to attend a private school, one relinquishes certain aspects of one’s freedom of speech on campus and is subjected to an institution’s conduct code and disciplinary system. This trade off raises the question of just how much a school can limit a student’s First Amendment rights—including their right to peaceably assemble.

Students all over the nation have been exercising their right to free speech in a coordinated effort to stop actions which damage the climate. Organized by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), a campaign against Bank of America and Citibank has engaged college students to stage protests when these bank recruiters visit their campuses. Bank of America and Citibank are among the largest funders of the coal industry; by protesting, these students hope these banks will divest in their funding of fossil-fuels.

In September, this protest movement reached Saint Louis University after RAN contacted a couple of students about the cause. Citibank was visiting SLU’s campus for the job fair and recruitment purposes, but their plans were altered after a handful of students protested at Citibank’s recruitment presentation. The action caused Citibank to withdraw their position at the job fair and the students involved soon saw the limitations of their First Amendment protection.

“This situation has developed into quite a different issue,” stated Landon Brownfield, one of the students involved with the protest. “Through struggle with student conduct and the administration, the situation has turned into a disagreement over students’ right to free speech.”

The students were given a variety of sanctions from Student Conduct and were charged with failure to comply, disorderly conduct, and inappropriate conduct.

“All of our sanctions are intended to be educational,” said Student Development Coordinator Diana Foster. “The University does not prevent students from protesting… but [it] says that there is a time, place and manner that you can do that.”

Foster pointed out that the school has a stated policy in the student handbook on protests, and that one person’s protest cannot disrespect another’s speech.

“We want to make sure that students are being respectful in the process [of their protest],” said Foster.The students involved with the protest disagree with this sentiment and feel that their protest was not done in an unnecessary fashion.

“Our protest was planned under the guidelines of non-violence, respect for others, and minimal disturbance,” stated Claire Daaleman, another student involved. “I feel that in this situation, I was given an opportunity to stand up or stand by.”

The students have been in contact with other universities that hosted the same protest and to their knowledge no other university students have received repercussions for participating in the protests, including students at Washington University. They have appealed their sanctions and hope that others will see the significants of the free speech issues being discussed.