University in Upstate New York Forces Activists Off Public Property by Claiming Eminent Domain

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute / Wikimedia Commons
March 7, 2018

A private university in upstate New York has been charged with yet another incident of censoring student expression, with student activists saying campus public safety officers forced them off public property by claiming eminent domain.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students said they were distributing anti-administration buttons on a public sidewalk outside a Feb. 24 hockey game, when RPI officials instructed them to relocate to a different street, asserting that university security commandeers jurisdiction of certain areas during sporting events.

The officers claimed streets under eminent domain were marked by police vehicles, but then insisted the students were not, in fact, permitted to stand on any public sidewalk unmarked by such a police presence, said student Michael Gardner.

Garder and Advaith Narayan, advocates with Save the Union, a coalition protesting the administration's efforts to wrest control of the over 100-year old, powerful student union, agreed to move to the specific cross-street the officers named, but Gardner maintained that they should never have been asked to do so.

The initial location, as well as a secondary location Gardner suggested that was rejected by the officers, were marked public on a tax map Gardner checked.

The incident has earned RPI its fourth reprimand this academic year from the free speech non-profit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, whose extensive investigation into RPI's stays on student expression has found ambiguous policies are unleashed against those who criticize the administration.

The claim of eminent domain "is as preposterous as it is legally incomprehensible," wrote FIRE senior program officer Adam Steinbaugh.

FIRE challenged RPI to produce the permit or agreement it has with city officials giving the university the right to "exercise control" of public sidewalks at certain times.

RPI spokesperson Richie Hunter told the Washington Free Beacon in an email that "students are allowed to distribute materials on campus with prior authorization," but that Gardner and Narayan failed to do so.

Hunter did not respond to queries regarding the claims of "eminent domain" and RPI direction of student activities on public property.

The university has taken repeated controversial actions against students and alumni who have criticized administrators in recent months, including pursuing sanctions against peaceful student protesters, and reprimanding alumni who critiqued the administration as being sexist and racist.