Smothering Student Voices

    ON CAMPUS — Just as UCSD students were cramming for finals and the 2006-07 academic year was coming to a close, a policy update snuck onto the table. It was impeccably convenient timing for university officials, since the majority of students were too overwhelmed with end-of-the-year work to even notice the severe blow to their rights.

    And its no wonder why administrators were so clandestine about the new document — the revision of section 501 of the UCSD Policy and Procedure Manual transformed a two-page guide to outdoor-space use, which generally aimed to protect constitutional freedoms while maintaining safety and functionality, into a 19-page paternalistic manifesto, which prohibits everything from chalking sidewalks to free gatherings of more than 10 people.

    A committee chaired by UCSD Associate Controller Sally Brainerd, was charged with revising the policy so that it ensures a “climate for free and open expression while providing a safe environment.” What they did was produce a document that is frightening in its absolute dictatorial outlook on freedom.

    The revision groups outdoor areas into “Designated Public Forums,” and then outlines how such forums are governed. Fair enough, right? Sure, except that the most central, and arguably most important, forums — Library Walk and Price Center for example — aren’t included in this public-forum designation at all. Instead these places are categorized as “program space,” which are governed separately, and significantly more vaguely, by the Library Walk and Sound Amplification Policies. Though documents regulating these areas remain nebulous at best, there is no actual written policy outlining rules for Price Center. Instead it seems these parts of campus are left to the discretion of inconsistent administrators.

    But as the heart of campus activity, shouldn’t these sites be, above all, public forums? Isn’t Library Walk, with Geisel Library towering proudly in the distance, always used as UCSD’s emblematic icon?

    Forget for a moment that these two hotspots are left at the whim of agenda-laden university officials, and remember that students’ rights are protected at all the other outdoor spaces —like college quad areas — which are governed as public forums.

    Actually, not quite. The new policy would monitor activities at public forums heavily. According to Brainerd, one focus of the committee was to protect listeners from being forced into an audience involuntarily. This means, for example, that, no matter where you are, if someone doesn’t want to hear you, it’s you that has to leave, not them. This change is baffling because it defies all logic. Isn’t a public forum, by definition, a place for individuals to express their complaints, ideas and beliefs freely and openly?

    Instead, the changes seek to stifle such expression with countless — and senseless — regulations. For example, the revision demands that any activity expected to attract a crowd of 10 people or more requires a reservation. Under this logic, students in a study group or some friends grabbing lunch would need a permit to do so.

    Additionally, these permits could be denied if the activity would “unreasonably interfere” with university functions. But such cloudy wording leaves a lot of room for interpretation, and with university officials already accused of abusing this policy and similar existing ones — such as citing sound amplification policies to remove activists who weren’t actually using any such amplification — a future of authoritarian enforcement is only too clear.

    Such extreme changes to a document that governed campus space use effectively for more than 20 years deserves to be a topic of open understanding and dialogue. Moreover, this specific policy governs nearly every aspect of outdoor activity and impacts every person who passes through campus. The document plays such an integral role in student life that any amendments to it need to be presented for all students, faculty and staff to discuss.

    But administrators wouldn’t want that — then they’d have to admit they’ve breached constitutional rights with the policy regulations. Freedom of speech? Freedom of assembly? According to UCSD, the Founding Fathers really meant the Bill of Rights as a guideline. And according to Brainerd, the “right not to listen,” is the only right that warrants protecting. (Because people who don’t want to listen can’t just walk away.)

    Of course there are times that those constitutional rights can be sidestepped. You can’t yell “Fire!” in a movie theater and you can’t protest the Iraq war in someone’s living room. But these restrictions make sense — neither is an appropriate venue for such actions.

    However, in the case of outdoor campus forums, there are no better venues for free expression. Furthermore, the policy is vague when it comes to enforcement, which allows administrators to enforce rules loosely and how they see fit — potentially targeting certain groups or activities.

    The potential for abuse and the brutal castration of freedom is not worth any theoretical gains on behalf of “involuntary listeners,” and instead foreshadows a dark and dangerous future for on-campus student rights.

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