Community discontent grows in response to demonstration policy change

902

A change in University policy on student demonstrations became effective just before the start of the school year and has sparked discussion between students and faculty who are in various states of discontent and confusion.

The Presidential Cabinet approved a new version of the demonstration policy in the student handbook on Aug. 15. Changes to the handbook happen each year, according to Dorian Shager, dean of campus life. However, this particular change caught the attention of some members of the DePauw University community.

While the University continues to affirm the right to demonstrate, there are several different phrases within the policy adjustment that have been highlighted as points of concern. One of the focal phrases is found on page 73 of the handbook, which states:

 

DePauw students, faculty, and staff are free to support causes in an orderly manner,

including organized demonstrations that do not disrupt the normal and essential

functions of the University. Actions that disrupt the normal and essential functions of the

University include material and substantial disruptions that are more than simply creating

discomfort and unpleasantness. Demonstrations may not endanger the physical safety

of any individual or destroy property.

 

Douglas Harms, professor of computer science, has heard discontent from a few fellow colleagues. “My understanding from some of my colleagues is that there needs to be a way to have disorderly protests for some significant issues and I actually agree with that,” Harms said.

First-year Phillip Collingwood agrees. “It sounds like a ‘disrupting the learning environment’ cop-out. The University will have seemingly reserved ultimate power because many actions can be seen as interrupting.”

However, Shager said some of the changes are meant to give student demonstrators more leniency, not less. For example, part of the new specificity in language includes the replacement of “do not disturb” functions of the University in the prior policy to “do not disrupt.” This was intended to raise the threshold of what could be considered an interruption or interference, according to Shager.

Other changes are meant to restrict non-DePauw demonstrators. Demonstrators who are not a part of the DePauw community must obtain a sponsorship from an academic or administrative department or from a recognized student organization. The goal was to make it harder for outside, non-DePauw affiliated demonstrators to come to campus, after the September 2015 provocative appearance of evangelist Brother Jed Smock and the counter demonstrations that followed.

Some changes were made to make the student body more aware of different laws and policies in effect regarding demonstrations. The new demonstration policy is a compilation of previously existing policies, with additional specificity and clarification added, Shager said.

During Spring 2017, drafts of the Demonstration Policy were shared with the Student Academic Life Committee (composed of students, faculty, and staff), faculty department chairs, and at an open forum for students, Shager said. Feedback from these groups indicated they believed that one purpose of a demonstration is to draw attention to a message and potentially cause some level of disturbance in an effort to draw attention.

It is for that reason why "material and substantial disruptions that are more than simply creating discomfort and unpleasantness" was added to the policy.  

He explained that during the draft period there weren’t any major issues with the policy brought to his attention. “It was a transparent process,” Shager said.

Harms questioned the use of the language “normal and essential functions.” It is typical and appropriate for policies to talk about the normal operations of a university, but every university policy should respect that, not just the demonstration policy, he said.

But, according to Shager, it was the language and standard that was already University policy. “The concept of ‘normal and essential functions’ has been a long-standing standard for peaceful demonstrations at DePauw,” Shager said. Additionally, the use of “normal and essential functions” has appeared in many prior handbooks, including one from 1999.

Harms additionally was struck by the particular use of “orderly.” A term that has been in the policy for at least ten years. He noted that demonstrations both orderly and disorderly have been crucial in making changes throughout history. He believes there are times where an orderly demonstration is appropriate, but then there are times where it is better to be spontaneous. It happens and to him it is not necessarily bad.

“My general understanding of the policy is orderly. Don’t rock the boat,” Harms said, “but there are times where the boat needs to be rocked.”

Additionally, the policy also refers to how students should proceed with counter demonstrations. Counter demonstrations must adhere to guidelines of the demonstration policy and occur at least 20 feet away from the initial protest. While it may be new to the written policy, the measures explained in the handbook have been in practice for two years.

“[Demonstrations] can raise awareness; it can get a discussion going to make systemic changes,” Harm said. “It can help create change.”

But to Harms, the policy creates a clear boundary. “If I know there is a line and if I cross the line, I should know the consequences, as opposed to finding out later with unknown consequences,” Harms said. In his eyes, it is not problematic to have a policy that outlines what is and is not acceptable. It allows groups that choose to demonstrate to be more informed of what they can do and what consequences might occur if they cross a line.

Shager thinks this is one of the reasons to have a demonstration policy. It allows DePauw community members to be more aware of rights and expectations before demonstrations occur, Shager said.

If students want to cross the lines, they can know here is where the lines are, Shager said. He explained the two lines in place include safety and then separately disturbing the normal function of the University.

Sophomore Natalia Costard, who has read the new policy, agrees with Harms. “Demonstration is important because that is how things change,” she said. Demonstrations are not effective unless people pay attention. The new policy seems to limit the impact of demonstration in her eyes.  “A demonstration is supposed to disrupt,” Costard said, “That is how you get people to listen.”