By Damon Krane
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)
Amid freezing temperatures and falling snow, about 100 students gathered on College Green on the afternoon of Friday, February 2 to protest campus restrictions on free speech and assembly, recent controversial administrative decisions, lack of student power in university governance, and what some speakers called the overall “corporatization” of Ohio University.
The rally was organized by the OU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, a national student organization founded in the 1960s and recently reborn at campuses across the country.
According to the OU SDS page on Facebook, the group aims “to further student power at Ohio University, and to increase democratic decision-making at every level of our educational institution.” A formal statement delivered at the rally by SDS member Rosemary Esch enumerated specific objections to recent administrative actions.
“Ohio University students are concerned with the unilateral actions taken by this administration concerning the new alcohol policy, the lack of communication with and respect for student senate, the recent implementation of the Halloween guest fee, and the sudden elimination of four varsity sports.”
The rally’s location was picked to highlight an additional grievance: OU’s policy of restricting outdoor campus events to a limited number of areas that have come to be known as OU’s “free speech zones.”
The SDS rally began at the Civil War monument, located within a dozen feet of a plaque dedicated by the Class of 2005. Set into the brick walkway, the plaque reads:
“College Green has served as a forum for the voices of Ohio University students throughout its history. Whether supporting civil rights, advocating for the abolishment of women’s curfews, or in protest, students have and will continue to play a vital role in shaping Ohio University.”
Ironically, this plaque is located in a part of campus that in recent years has been made off-limits to student demonstrations and other planned events. SDSers chose to hold their rally at the monument in violation of OU policy.
“The point of free speech is that it is free,” said Esch. “If you restrict it to certain out-of-the-way zones, it is no longer free speech. The term ‘free speech zone’ contains an inherent contradiction'”
“Learning is about dialogue and questioning. That’s what it means to be a student, right?” another SDS speaker asked the crowd. “So really what we have here is your school telling you that you’re not allowed to be students.”
Days before the rally, Dean of Students Terry Hogan issued a defense of OU’s policy on the use of outdoor campus spaces, which was posted on the university’s website.
“We fully support the right of students and others to express their views on all topics,” Hogan wrote. “We do, though, have reasonable rules as to the time, place and manner’ of speech that are designed to 1) protect the rights of those who want to express themselves and to 2) avoid disruption of University operations'”
Ohio University policy 24.016, “Use of Outdoor Spaces on the Athens Campus,” states that events such as the SDS rally may be held at 22 specific locations on campus, and only after a reservation is made and approved by administrators. According to Hogan, this policy is intended “to protect those who have planned events (‘expression’) from having their events disrupted by others, and to limit disruption to the operation of the university.”
According to the 1969 landmark Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District and subsequent case law, OU administrators do indeed have the legal right to impose restrictions on the “time, place and manner” of student speech in order to prevent substantial disruptions of normal university proceedings and to protect the rights of others. However, Dean Hogan’s statement did not mention the Civil War monument specifically or make any argument about why events held there would disrupt classes.
Of the 22 outdoor locations OU allows students to reserve for planned events, the two areas nearest to the Civil War monument – West Portico of Memorial Auditorium and the Howard Hall site – are both significantly closer to classroom buildings (e.g. Ellis Hall, the Radio/Television building, Kantner Hall, Glidden Hall) than is the monument.
From College Green, SDS and its supporters marched to Cutler Hall in an attempt to deliver a statement of their grievances to OU President Roderick McDavis. After being told McDavis was unavailable to meet with them (which SDS’s Sarah McGarity sacarsticly described to the amused crowd as “a big fucking surprise”) demonstrators marched to the new Baker University Center where they were finally able to deliver their statement to Hogan.
Included in the SDS statement was a demand for a written response to student grievances by Tuesday, February 6, at 5:00pm – after press time for this edition of The InterActivist. To learn how to obtain a copy of any such response, one may contact OU President Roderick McDavis at 740-593-1804 or mcdavis@ ohio.edu, or Dean of Students Terry Hogan at 740-593-4022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Editor’s notes, 1/10/13 – OU finally revised its policy regarding campus speech [include info]. However, that didn’t stop OU officials from lying to students about the new policy in order to attempt to suppress student speech. Indeed, SDS was targetted in one such incident. See “SDS members: OUPD has reopened free speech debate” (Athens News, 9/15/08) and “The nerve of those SDS radicals, striving for results” (Athens News, 9/17/08).
For further coverage of the OU chapter of SDS, see also:
“Student leaders wonder what’s taking so long with speech policy,” Athens News, 9/13/07
“SDS to support OU workers union in upcoming protest of trustees,” Athens News, 9/27/07
“University’s belated response to designated speech spots due Oct. 15,” Athens News, 10/8/07
“Since OU won’t grant us our rights, it’s up to the people to take them,” Athens News, 10/15/07
“Potest targets ‘speech zones’ on campus, university responds,” Athens News, 2/5/07
“Panelists speak freely about free speech at OU,” Athens News, 4/30/07
“OU’s SDS needs a dose of…reality,” Athens News, 10/4/07
“OU’s SDS should play to its strength – — having big subversive fun,” Athens News, 1/15/09
“It’s gratifying to see that SDS won ‘Best Student Organization,'” Athens News, 1/5/09]