May 26, 2019 | 78° F

RUSA town hall takes a critical look at the line between free speech and hate speech

From demonstrations to flyers and graffiti, leaders in the Rutgers community discussed the current climate on campus

Photo by Cynthia Vasquez |

Featuring appearances from faculty members and administrators, Thursday’s ‘Free Speech Town Hall’ focused on the intersection of Free Speech and Hate Speech at Rutgers. The event took place one week after police investigated a swastika, spray painted on Stonier Hall.

Last Thursday’s meeting of the Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) included a "Free Speech Town Hall," hosted by the Student Affairs Committee, which featured several prominent members of the University community and engaged students and administrators in a dialogue about the current climate and issues concerning student demonstrations.

The discussion was moderated by Sabeen Rokerya, the Student Affairs Committee chairwoman and School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior.

The idea for this event has been a long time coming, Rokerya told The Daily Targum in an email.

“It has been a topic of discussion by RUSA and the student body for a while, and that has been amplified over the past few months,” she said, stressing the topic’s relevance to some of the recent campus-wide and nationwide incidents regarding free speech and hate speech.

The town hall featured four distinguished panelists: Dr. Felicia McGinty, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, Dr. Salvador Mena, associate vice chancellor of Student Affairs, Dr. Barbara Lee, the senior vice president for Academic Affairs and Dean Ronald Chen, co-dean and distinguished professor of law at the Rutgers Law School—Newark.

Following a brief introduction of each panelist, Rokerya invited them to explain the role of student demonstrations and protests from a university perspective, as well as from a legal perspective.

“Historically, over the course of American history, college students have played a key role in creating change,” McGinty said, adding that she accepts the exercise of free speech rights through demonstrations as part of the process.

Citing the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as the recent attack in New York City in which a vehicle was used as a weapon, McGinty noted that her largest concern regarding student demonstrations is safety.

“This is my 29th year working as a professional in student affairs,” she said. “And I’ve never felt the sense of concern that I feel right now about the safety of students in demonstrations.”

Many of the questions from students in the audience were surrounding the Board of Governors’ revisions to the Rutgers University disruption policy, which were published last April.

Students expressed concerns about what the ramifications of the policy change will be for student protests and demonstrations, including annual demonstrations, such as the "Take Back the Night" march and rally organized by the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance (VPVA) to raise awareness about gender-based violence.

“I don’t know how many of you have heard President (Robert L.) Barchi talk about this policy, but he says consistently ... that the revision to the policy merely made more clear than it had been in the past, precisely what sorts of actions could violate the policy,” Lee said.

Lee explained that the policy begins by talking about the right to freedom of expression, including peaceful protests and orderly demonstrations, adding that "Take Back the Night" has typically been a peaceful event and hence there would be no problem with it.

“The concern that the policy seeks to address is non-peaceful protests and disorderly demonstrations that do things like put people at risk of injury or make it difficult or impossible for the people of New Brunswick or Rutgers University to go about their business,” she said.

Chen, who has been involved with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for much of his professional career and currently serves on the ACLU National Board Executive Committee, added that before sending the policy to the Board of Governors, the policy was also shown to the Legal Director of the ACLU of New Jersey to ensure it did not infringe upon students’ rights.

There was a strong consensus among the panelists that the best way for students to account for safety concerns, as well as to avoid any confusion about what is acceptable under the University disruption policy, is simply to communicate with the University.

Echoing McGinty’s call for an open dialogue between students and the administration about issues of concern, Mena said, “We’re here to work with you, to sit down with you, to process with you, to reflect with you ... about how (to) bring about change.”

McGinty appealed to students to understand her perspective on the issue. 

“We are the Division of Student Affairs,” she said to the audience. “You are our business, and we are responsible. So if you want to have a demonstration, you can have a demonstration. But we’re coming with you ... not to control what you do, but to make sure that you’re safe.”

McGinty added that Student Affairs coordinates with the Rutgers University Police Department (RUPD) in preparation for student demonstrations, who in turn coordinates with the New Brunswick Police Department to ensure the safety of demonstrators and of those in the surrounding community.

“If you don’t want to take the risk that you’re interpreting the policy wrong, then pre-negotiate beforehand what you want to do," Chen said.

Chen, emphasizing that this notion is true beyond the Rutgers campuses, recounted participating in a demonstration with the ACLU at Terminal B of Newark Liberty International Airport following President Donald J. Trump’s signing of Executive Order 13769 in late January. The order banned the entrance of immigrants from several countries and froze the U.S. refugee program for 120 days.

The ACLU wanted to start an impromptu demonstration, he said, so for security reasons, the ACLU legal director explained their intent to demonstrate to the police at the airport.

“And do you know how it turned out? They went out of their way to accommodate it. They cordoned off a prominent portion of the roadway in front of Terminal B with access to television cameras, and they frankly helped us have a more effective demonstration,” Chen said.

A large part of the discussion on Thursday focused on how to respond to the number of recent incidents on campus, such as vandalism, chalking and provocative flyers and speech — the targets of which included students of color, minorities and undocumented students.

“If we want to play the policy game, I can go chapter and verse of what policy this may violate, but to me, it’s much deeper than that,” she said. 

McGinty invited every student to have a conversation with her about how best to acknowledge this issue.

Jessamyn Bonafe, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, took the opportunity to ask the panelists what more can be done besides creating forums for discussion. 

“We’ve already come to a point where talking may not be enough for certain people,” she said.

Mena turned the question back on the audience. 

“What more are we going to do?” he said. “And you’re part of the ‘we.’ We don’t have the answers to wave the magic wand and have the environment be as idyllic as possible, but you all also play a role to that end.”

Bonafe later told The Daily Targum that she believes this town hall event will serve as a good stepping stone, but that it is not enough, adding that students have already been demanding what needs to happen. 

She cited the need for a more diverse faculty and staff, as well as the need to teach faculty and staff to be more “culturally competent.”

Bonafe also would have liked to see graduate students, as well as faculty and staff at the conversation, she said.

In an email after the event, Rokerya expressed a similar sentiment, noting that she would have liked to see a larger turnout from student groups and individuals.

The primary message Rokerya hoped students took from the town hall is that “we need to stay positive and foster support for the individuals around us ... We, as the student body, should feel empowered to make our voices heard,” she said. 

Christina Gaudino

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Targum.