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Trustees Limit CUNY First Amendment Rights

The Brooklyn College campus has seen several protests over the years, such as this protest for tuition-free public education and other demands. The CUNY Board of Trustees policy seeks to restrict these kinds of demonstrations. PHOTO/ Jericho Tran
The Brooklyn College campus has seen several protests over the years, such as this protest for tuition-free public education and other demands. The CUNY Board of Trustees policy seeks to restrict these kinds of demonstrations. PHOTO/ Jericho Tran

By Jericho Tran

Published: October 5th, 2016

During the Listening Tour hosted by Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson on Thursday, students addressed the newly revised Policy on Freedom of Expression and Expressive Conduct, which specifies limitations on when and where students and faculty may express their views on campus.

Although Anderson was not aware that the policy is still being discussed, she promised to touch base with the City University of New York (CUNY) Board of Trustees in order to figure out “where the policy was procedurally.”

In a statement supporting the policy on June 13, General Counsel and Senior Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs Frederick P. Schaffer wrote that the draft policy was proposed to the CUNY Board of Trustees in 2013. However, as of last year, CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken created a group comprised of presidents, faculty, and students to revise the draft.

“The working group substantially revised the earlier draft policy in ways that made it more protective of such freedom,” said Schaffer.

In fact, this promised “protection” translates to restrictions on the expressive conduct of students and faculty. “It is well established that certain forms of expressive conduct may appropriately be subject to reasonable restrictions as to time, place, and manner,” it reads.

The newly revised policy also limits forms of student and faculty protests which include, “…demonstrations, leafleting and tabling,” further stating that these forms of protest, “ must be carried out so as to ensure the safety of individuals, the protection of property, and the continuity of the University’s educational activities and business operations.”

“This sounds sensible enough, but the question is: Who decides?” said President of the Brooklyn College Chapter of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) CUNY, James Davis. “You can’t compel people to be quiet as a church mouse while affirming their right to freedom of expression.”

According to the University Student Senate (USS) during a recent meeting on Sept. 25, the policy is set to go before the CUNY Board of Trustees for approval later this month, leaving students and faculty little time to contest the policy.

“We are a commuter campus,” said CLAS Student Government President Florencia Salinas at the listening tour. “We have students that have to work to support themselves, so it’s unrealistic to expect such a large number of students to come out to these hearings in order to demonstrate that we are against this policy.”

Throughout the years, CUNY students and faculty have held protests addressing key campus issues such as rising tuition, a fair contract for professors, and racial equality. During the Spring 2016 semester, student protesters at Brooklyn College were found in violation of the Henderson Laws—a set of ten rules in place to maintain public order on campus.

“Students are against [the Policy on Freedom of Expression and Expressive Conduct], we believe that the Henderson Rules already cover situations like this and this would put a lot of power in your hands,” Salinas said to the president during the listening tour. “The Board of Trustees has repeatedly said that once something leaves committee it will be passed.”

Salinas informed Anderson during the meeting that the revised version of the policy would allow the college president to decide whether or not student and faculty demonstrations were appropriate for the campus.

“I think this policy is a direct result of recent demonstrations both on this campus and CUNY campuses at large. I’m talking about Black Lives Matter, [and] faculty and the tuition increase,” Salinas said, alluding to protests during the spring and to the recent Black Lives Matter protest on campus, when a “Black Lives Matter” sign was removed from Boylan Hall promptly following the protest.

,If enacted by the Board of Trustees, the policy would affect the estimated 500,000 CUNY attendees. And Chika Onyejiukwa, the interim chairperson for the CUNY USS, serves as the only student representation on the 17-member Board.

“It’s a large board,” said Anderson, “I will say that I’ve been impressed at the vigor with which [the student on the board] takes their role seriously and interacts at the board meetings and really tries to engage.”

According to Anderson, the governor and the mayor of New York are responsible for making the appointments to the Board of Trustees; however, she was unsure of what structure appointed the student representative to the board.

“It hard to communicate amongst so many,” said Salinas, “You only get that one vote, you can go to the hearings but that doesn’t seem sufficient.”

Further discussion about the policy will take place at the CUNY Council of Presidents this Wednesday.

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