Dean of Student Life Terry Martinez recently released the University’s Interim Student Guidelines for the Protection of Public Expression, angering student groups that argue the guidelines encroach on free expression.
The guidelines have sparked a debate over the University’s role in on-campus protests, the document’s confusing language and whether the University can place “guidelines” on free expression.
What are the guidelines?
The document outlines several policies that activist groups “should follow” or “should consider,” like the Office of Student Leadership and Involvement’s (SLI) event planning guide.
The University has the right to restrict the “time, place and manner” of protests, especially if they interrupt other students’ right to free expression or any educational activities.
The guidelines assert that students have a right to dissent and to freedom of expression. But they do not have the automatic right to use University spaces, which are not places of unrestricted public access.
If protesters threaten passersby, if they damage Hopkins property, if they block entry or exit from buildings or if they occupy parts of campus without authorization, the University may take action.
Registered demonstrations will be assigned an official University liaison, who will ensure that student groups are aware of pertinent policies and the “health and safety” of protesters.
In the final “considerations” paragraph of the guidelines, student groups are strongly encouraged to follow the document.
“To avoid an escalated security response by campus Safety and Security and/or the involvement of the Baltimore Police Department, students and/or student organization[s] should follow the various campus policies mentioned throughout the document,” it states.
Much of the confusion surrounding the guidelines stems from Martinez’s accidental release of an earlier version of the document, which concerned student groups argued was unnecessarily restrictive.
According to Martinez, The Office of the Dean of Student Life originally created the guidelines in response to student groups’ requests. She said that these student groups wanted one document that outlined all of the University’s current policies on free expression.
“We actually started this document some time at the beginning of last semester,” she said. “I knew given the upcoming elections that there might be some more activism on campus and was just trying to put together an easy way for students to have access to that information.”
Concerned Student Groups
In an opinions piece in last week’s issue of The News-Letter, concerned student organizations, led by Hopkins Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), criticized the policy’s vague language and accused the University of stifling free expression.
Freshman Mira Wattal, a spokesperson for SDS, is worried about the document’s clear dismissal of the “automatic right” of access to University spaces.
“Right off the bat, the University is recommending that students have some sort of prior permission before they can protest and exercise their right to make demands of the University,” she said.
Wattal objected to the fact that under the SLI event planning guide, student protests require an event advising meeting because they are designated Level 3 or Level 4 events. She argues that these extra steps would limit the efficacy of student protests and impose needless bureaucratic restrictions. She highlighted the rule that requires all events, including protests, to be registered 10 business days in advance.
“With student action [events], timelines are often sensitive,” she said. “For example, the Hands Off the Humanities Protests... they couldn’t have had 10 business days to come up with a protest [and] register through this whole set of bureaucratic steps.”
For Wattal, the idea of placing guidelines on free expression is antithetical to the idea of protest. She stressed that contract workers need immediate change and cannot afford to wait for “bureaucratic nonsense.”
“Their rights are something that should be given to them now, and that’s why I think it’s important that the University should not have to give us ‘permission’ to have access for a demonstration,” she said.
Because the University is often the target for on-campus protests, it cannot act as a neutral party that polices them, according to Wattal. She cited the fossil fuel divestment protests, the Black Student Union’s protest that led to the Roadmap on Diversity and Inclusion in 2015 and the recent Student-Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) protests as examples.
“They cannot say that we do not have the right to disrupt administrative activities because oftentimes that is what we need to do to make sure that our demands are being heard,” she said.
Wattal argued that the guidelines attack students’ right to protest or counter-protest. She understood why the University had added the provision but advocated for its deletion.
“Obviously, we want to ensure that everyone’s voices are being heard, but just because students have the right to express themselves, they do not have the right to be free from dissent,” she said.
Although Wattal thinks that the University wants to foster a supportive community for student activists, the vagueness of the guidelines and its claim to be a neutral party are concerning.
“It seems that the timing that these were released — right after the SLAC protests — seems as if the University was trying to use the guidelines as a scare tactic.”
Wattal said that the document’s assertion that students are “accountable for their invited guests” is vague and disappointing. SDS is advocating for the protection of contract workers under any revised guidelines and the recognition of dining and security workers as official members of the Hopkins community.
“They’re not second-class citizens, they deserve the same rights as full employees as the University defines it, and the fact that [Hopkins] even used that kind of language in the guidelines on free expression is disheartening,” she said.
Martinez said that she will meet with SDS and other concerned student groups in the next two weeks and pointed out that the document can be amended. She denied that the surge in student activism was in any way connected to the guidelines’ release.
For junior Atlas Elawad, the incoming president of the fossil fuel divestment movement Refuel Our Future (ROF), any “guidelines” are opposed to the very idea of free expression, even though they are not technically binding.
“Really anything that encroaches on, or restricts, a student’s ability to express [him or herself], for us, that conflicts almost entirely with what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Like Wattal, Elawad believes that the guidelines are responding to the recent spike in activism in Baltimore and at Hopkins. He does not believe Martinez’s assertion that the two are unconnected.
Elawad said that while the guidelines may affect possible ROF demonstrations in the future, they will not adapt their campaign. On Monday, they hosted an unregistered rally before the JHU Forum on Divestment. Putting pressure on the University through impromptu demonstrations has been critical to Refuel’s mission.
“We’re definitely going to continue to do what we have to do to get the University to divest; That’s never going to change,” he said.
What does SGA think?
Martinez presented the guidelines to the Student Government Association (SGA) senate before releasing the document. She also worked closely with the SGA executive board to incorporate their feedback into guideline revisions.
However, sophomore AJ Tsang, the incoming executive vice president of SGA, wishes the entire SGA senate had been invited to review the document prior to its release instead of just the executive board.
Tsang understands why the University developed the guidelines but is deeply concerned about the restrictive effect they could have on student expression. Tsang said that next year’s SGA executive board will fight to ensure that all registered student protests are approved.
Tsang hopes that SGA will be able to pressure the administration to open permanent “demonstration spaces” on campus where students can express their concerns at any time. Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley have opened similar spaces.
He believes that Martinez and her team want to support free expression but may have faced pressure from upper-ranking administrators, who rarely interact with students, to write the guidelines. Tsang stressed that students must continue to defend their free-speech rights.
“I think it’s so important that students can ruffle feathers, that students do get out there and have the ability to demonstrate,” he said. “As long as we’re not vandalizing anything — and I don’t think anyone ever does that — I think we should have the right to gather and demonstrate. That’s enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.”
While Martinez has been working on the guidelines since October, Tsang, like Elawad and Wattal, sees a clear connection between the spike in campus activism and the document’s release. He cited the past few years’ Black Lives Matter and fossil fuel divestment demonstrations, all directed at the administration, as a motivating factor behind the guidelines.
Tsang hopes that administrators who only occasionally interact with students understand why so many are concerned with the guidelines.
“We’re not trying to burn down Garland,” he said. “We’re trying to get in Garland and talk to people who can make these changes.”
SGA Executive President Charlie Green and her executive board support Martinez and the guidelines. Green rejected the link between the guidelines and the spike in activism and said that the executive board extensively revised the guidelines.
“We went through each section of the guidelines. We gave feedback on a lot of the wording,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “We believe they were put in place to encourage students to register protests beforehand, so that they avoid any scheduling and space issues.”
Martinez said that her office has worked closely with SGA and changed the more restrictive language after their feedback.
“It seemed very restrictive, and so we changed all of the language... so that it could be seen as ‘If you wanted to plan an event, here’s something you need to know, so here’s something that you should consider,’” she said.
Martinez said that while the backlash surprised her, the concerns raised by students have merit.
“I’d like to sit down and talk with students because it’s not intended to squelch protests at all,” she said. “It’s intended to make sure that they’re coordinated so that each group — whatever side of an opinion students might have — that they have an opportunity to protest.”
While Martinez says the right to counter-protest is critical, she argues that students should respect space reservations on campus. She recognizes that registering demonstrations may be counter to the nature of protest, but Martinez wants students to respect others’ right to hold events on campus.
She specifically cited a Humanities Center protest last semester that disrupted an event for an advertising class that had reserved the Levering Courtyard.
“[If they had registered the protest,] we could have gone to that student group and said, ‘Hey, there are some students that are planning a protest. We just want to make sure that you’re aware of that... so both events can happen at the same time,” she said.
Martinez said that registering protests would allow the administration to ensure that a University representative is there to collect protesters’ demands. The new version of the document removed references to “disrupting administrative activities,” and Martinez promised that Garland will remain open for student protests.
Martinez said that students shouldn’t think of the guidelines as hard policies and that there is room for negotiation. She also mentioned that it would be hard to enforce many of the policies.
“If people don’t reserve the space there’s nothing really that we can do about that... It really was intended to ensure that students can have a smooth event,” she said. “It wasn’t intended to restrict.”