In April 2017, Refuel Our Future held a sit-in for fossil fuel divestment.
After soliciting feedback from concerned student groups, the University released a revised version of its suggested guidelines for free expression on Jan. 29.
According to administrators, the new guidelines are designed to clarify the University’s support for free speech and provide resources to those who are planning protests. While many students feel that the language of the revised guidelines is less restrictive than that of the previous version, they are still unsatisfied and see them as a way for the University to obstruct student activism.
For senior Atlas Elawad, president of Refuel Our Future (Refuel), demonstrations have been one of the most effective tools in the organization’s fight for the University to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Elawad believes their protests led to the University’s decision to divest from thermal coal companies.
Like other student leaders, Elawad said that the guidelines infringe on students’ right to free speech and may prevent them from speaking out on important issues.
“Increased administrative involvement in these kinds of matters always results in restricted student voices and restricted expression,” he said.
After the University released their first draft of the guidelines in April 2017, several student organizations, including Refuel, published an op-ed in The News-Letter outlining their concerns. During the fall 2017 semester, administrators reached out to those organizations, which included Refuel, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU), in order to solicit input on the guidelines during the revision process.
According to Vice Provost Kevin Shollenberger, the version of the guidelines released in April was intended to be a draft but was prematurely circulated among students.
The first draft of the guidelines gave the University the ability to restrict the “time, place and manner” of protests. Students were encouraged to reach out to the Office of the Dean of Student Life prior to planning protests or demonstrations. The guidelines also said students “should” reserve spaces in advance to avoid conflict with other planned events.
Many students were concerned that these and other aspects of the guidelines infringed on their right to free expression.
Shollenberger helped to facilitate discussions in order to hear and respond to the specific issues students found with the guidelines.
“Students responded to the idea that they had to register their protest or demonstration and that [it] seemed kind of counterintuitive, especially if they were protesting against a University policy,” Shollenberger said. “We certainly encourage students to work with our office if they want to do a protest or demonstration but it is not required.”
Senior Alizay Jalisi, the president of Hopkins Feminists, was invited by administrators to share her thoughts on the free expression guidelines. As the leader of a group that holds demonstrations, Jalisi believes it is vital for students to have the power to organize.
“I appreciate the guidelines stating that while the administration supports free speech and expression, it is also committed to having a safe environment,” she said.
However, she does not agree with certain guidelines, such as ones stating that students may not disrupt buildings by blocking entrances.
“Expecting students to have a certain kind of protest, that doesn’t take up space and doesn’t interrupt anyone else’s daily routine is kind of ridiculous and counterintuitive to the idea that a protest or demonstration is supposed to be a disruption,” she said.
Shollenberger emphasized that administrators are open to discourse on campus and want students to feel supported in their endeavors, while at the same time ensuring that all individuals are safe.
“We’ve had a number of protests last year where students came into Garland Hall. We allowed that to happen,” Shollenberger said. “Where we would intervene is if students tried to shut down a lecture or a class.”
Students still are at risk of violating the new guidelines if their demonstration or protest threatens the safety and security of others. The University prohibits speech and expression that threatens or targets a specific person or group. Any incitement of violence is also prohibited on University grounds.
Students could face consequences if they violate the student code of conduct, engage in discriminatory actions, or use discriminatory speech during a protest or demonstration, Shollenberger said.
Along with student groups, administrators also sought out the input of the Student Government Association (SGA). Executive Vice President AJ Tsang said that while SGA is not satisfied with the guidelines, they do see some improvements from the initial draft that give students more flexibility.
“In the current version, they do make clear that they are okay with non-planned demonstrations so long as they don’t jeopardize public safety,” Tsang said.
He added that the language in the revised guidelines is not as restrictive as the version released in April.
“In previous versions of the document, it did seem like they were very hands-on and wanting to manage every single detail of the planning process,” Tsang said. “The new version of the guidelines recognizes that students can and should have their own agency in planning and implementing their own demonstrations and rallies.”
Junior Clarissa Chen, a member of Refuel, commented that many of the guidelines attempt to create bureaucratic procedures when protests inherently are designed to enact change outside of a bureaucratic system.
“It’s well-intentioned… but misses the idea and point of why people want to hold protests and demonstrations,” she said.
In addition to consulting with undergraduates, Shollenberger said that administrators reached out to the graduate students in the Graduate Representative Organization (GRO).
For Matthias Lalisse, a cognitive science PhD student who helped organize protests in support of the Humanities Center in fall 2016, the very nature of the guidelines gives the University the power to suppress protests. He said that he was not consulted by administrators about the new free expression guidelines.
“I construe the policy is currently written to be a way for the administration to give itself enough legal room so that selectively — on the basis of motives known only to the Provost and their office — they can target people whose actions they don’t agree with,” he said.
Lalisse noted that historically, student activism has been successful at Hopkins, citing labor protests that ultimately helped improve worker conditions on campus. His concern is that restrictions on free speech will prevent students from advocating for themselves and others.
“The Student Labor Action Coalition, [which] in 2000 occupied Garland Hall for about a hundred hours, received personal visits and acclaim from famous scholars like David Harvey and Noam Chomsky and won for the lowest paid workers on this campus a very significant wage gain,” he said.
Like Lalisse, sophomore Mira Wattal, the co-president of SDS, believes that the University should take a hands-off approach to free expression on campus. In past years, SDS has often protested against the University; for example, they held several demonstrations to advocate for better wages for contract workers.
“It’s important in giving the freedom to students to be able to leverage their position, that universities remain hands off,” she said. “A lot of the tactics that are prohibited seriously impede the ability of students to protest against the University.”
While some student groups may want to reach out to the University for resources, Wattal said that SDS would probably not need guidelines for their specific purposes. The guidelines will not affect how SDS operates. Similarly, Elawad said that Refuel will continue to do their work, regardless of what the guidelines state.
“Resources are optional. Whether or not we want to disclose to them that a demonstration is happening is and should remain at our discretion,” he said. “For us as a student group, these guidelines have no bearing on the way that we operate.”
Alyssa Wooden contributed reporting.