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Quiet semester at Rutgers sparks concerns about new protest policy

<p>Updates to the University's policy regarding protests and rallies on campus have caused concern among students who are unsure whether their rights are protected. Changes to the policy emphasize student freedom of expression as long as it does not interfere with University operations.</p>

Updates to the University's policy regarding protests and rallies on campus have caused concern among students who are unsure whether their rights are protected. Changes to the policy emphasize student freedom of expression as long as it does not interfere with University operations.

Coming off of a strong season of protests in the spring, Rutgers University seems unusually quiet this year with fewer students participating in rallies and demonstrations this semester.

In April, an update was made to a University policy on rallies and demonstrations held on Rutgers property to differentiate between the terms “free expression” and “disruption.” Now, student advocacy leaders are questioning whether the policy is to blame for fewer students expressing their voice in the fall.

“I get that student safety is important but the current policy now, besides common sense items like ‘do not obstruct vehicle, bike and pedestrian lanes,’ there are some things in reading the text itself that make you say, ‘Woah, this is against our First Amendment rights,’” said Adeel Ahmed, a Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) senator-at-large and a School of Arts and Sciences junior.

Ahmed is also RU Progressive’s co-president and said that, to him, in specific areas of the policy the language is vague, and he questions whether a student’s right to protest a guest speaker on campus is still protected under the new policy change. He cited an example of students who painted their faces blood-red to show their disapproval when Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at Rutgers last year.

The policy in question is titled "Disruptions: Administrative Policy and Response," which states freedom of expression is protected but does not allow all students to engage in activities that intentionally or recklessly interfere with University operations, the use of University facilities or the rights of other students to engage in educational pursuits.

In an email response from the senior vice president for Academic Affairs, Barbara A. Lee said students' right to freedom of expression, including peaceful protests and orderly demonstrations, is still protected under the updated policy, but that there is a difference between free speech and conduct that disrupts operations of the University.

“The policy protects peaceful protests and orderly demonstrations,” Lee said. “Interfering with a speaker — the so-called ‘heckler’s veto’ — is not protected by the First Amendment (or by University policy), because it prohibits listeners from hearing the speaker’s message.”

The #NoBanNoWall protest in the beginning of the year is an example of a peaceful and orderly protest and is exactly what the policy protects, she said.

But for Tamaj Nicholson, president of the Rutgers chapter of Black Lives Matter and a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, a problem with the updated policy is its lack of transparency. 

He said that because there has not been a public statement from the University, students have not been informed about it unless they have taken the extra steps to read about the policy.

“For students who haven’t been able to find it, like myself, but do know it exists, the policy does put some fear into you on whether you can or cannot protest,” Nicholson said.

As of now, the Division of Student Affairs created a page on the Dean of Students' website to distribute information about expressive activity, and a brochure on free expression was shared with student organizations and individuals organizing on campus, Lee said.

Andrea Vacchiano, president of Rutgers chapter of Young Americans for Liberty and a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said that she is conflicted about the update.

“On one hand, as a Libertarian, I completely believe in a students' right to protest, because it's healthy for a lot of discourse to happen at the University,” Vacchiano said. “But, on the other hand, I know protests at Rutgers, especially last year, have been disruptive and ended with vandalism.”

Vacchiano said the same protest against Milo Yiannopoulos last year also had reports of vandalism that cost Rutgers money. 

She said college should be a place where students expose their mind to different ideas — especially from people who do not share similar values, and the best way to do that is to have an open dialogue that does not incite violence.

“Sometimes we’re attacking the person and not the idea,” said Lorena Pedetti, an ambassador for RU Alternative Breaks and a School of Arts and Sciences senior.

Pedetti said that despite the lack of student protests this semester, there are still other ways to get involved at Rutgers if you truly are passionate. It is not only a chance to learn about social issues but also to reflect on your own thinking since there will be other members with perspectives that contradict your own.

Myles Wolosz, a School of Arts and Sciences junior who was not aware of the updated University policy, said that student protests have a special value that cannot be replaced.

“If we have no protests, no one is going to know what to stand for, and people on the fence about an issue, won’t know what side to be a part of,” he said.

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