RPI Under Fire for Stifling Students' First Amendment Rights

School attempting to punish protesters

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November 14, 2017

Students at New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) have been hit with a disciplinary inquiry for holding a campus protest, prompting criticism from First Amendment advocates.

The students under investigation are affiliated with Save the Union—a group seeking to retain student control of the student union in defiance of what it sees as years of undue administrative interference—for their participation in an Oct. 13 protest outside of a black-tie fundraising launch event, held during homecoming weekend. The Save the Union event reportedly drew some 1,000 students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

Protesters chanted, "We deserve transparency" and "our Union, our voice," reported school paper, the Polytechnic.

They later pushed through temporary barriers set up around a portion of the campus and protested in the cordoned-off area for two hours.

University officials have sent letters to two individuals informing them that they are under official judicial inquiry. Possible violations include "trespassing," "failure to comply with an Institute official," and "violations of a published Rensselaer/Student Government Policy or Regulation," specifically rules pertaining to the "maintenance of public order." Nine more have received have received "informal inquiries," according to Save the Union. Those students were told they had been "identified at the demonstration," and were asked to schedule a meeting with administrators. "Please know that you are not in any trouble, but it is important that we meet," the letter read.

The letters refer to the student handbook for clarification, where the alleged violations are obscurely defined. The charge of disrupting "public order" directs students to the procedure required to obtain administrative authorization for a campus protest, in which the dean of students, Travis Apgar, is empowered with dispensing final approval based on unspecified standards.

The students were denied this authorization to hold last month's protest, as Apgar said the administration "made a decision some time ago that we would not approve demonstration applications for the [homecoming] dates," according to reports.

Save the Union said, "The unprecedented institutional destruction of faculty and student involvement on campus, financial misfeasance, and the culture of fear promoted by the President and her obedient Trustees are issues for which students have risked much to put in their public square for discussion and action."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a libertarian, First Amendment advocacy organization has sent three letters to RPI in recent weeks admonishing administrators for "their crusade to stamp out student criticism."

"Rensselaer promises to respect freedom of expression [in its handbook], but in reality is suppressing dissent on campus," said FIRE Senior Program Officer Adam Steinbaugh in a statement. "Instead of scrutinizing students exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate, Rensselaer needs to scrutinize its own policies and practices."

"If Rensselaer does not do a quick about-face and abandon its course of conduct, the institute should have to explain, to its accreditor, the disparity between its promises and its conduct," continued Steinbaugh. "Rensselaer can easily avoid that predicament by dropping the charges, admitting it can do better, and reforming the policies that led it down this path."

FIRE mentions multiple other anti-free speech offenses by RPI, including disciplinary action taken against students who gave interviews about the protest and the pulling down of Save the Union posters by an individual identified as RPI staff on the day of the demonstration.

Apgar was not immediately available for comment, but in a statement published by the student paper, he said, "it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any individual student's situation related to the incident," but that students under investigation participated in a breach of "security barriers as part of an unauthorized demonstration."

Apgar said he had "several conversations" with protest organizers prior to the demonstration, "in which I shared that if people were to gather that day and comply with security procedures, including staying behind the partitioning, there would be no action necessary."

"That is not what transpired," said Apgar. "I am incredibly thankful that no physical harm resulted from any of this group's actions."

Save the Union, who maintain they were "peaceful and respectful," said in a statement, "This latest move by the  [a]dministration is just another in a series of maneuvers aimed at trampling students' rights and censoring the student voice by wielding fear as an effective weapon."

In a joint statement, the student union president, Matthew Rand, and grand marshal, Justin Etzine, said, "We—alongside innumerable students, faculty, staff, and even administrators—are both shocked and appalled by the recent revelations as well as the actions taken against these students."

Update Nov. 15, 1:09 p.m.: This post has been updated with further information.