The Committee for Open Expression, newly created by the Task Force on Dissent, Protest and Community, acts as a mediator between protesters and the administration. The Task Force on Dissent was originally commissioned by University President James W. Wagner as a reaction to the arrest of seven students, including four Emory graduate students, two students from Georgia State University and one student from Georgia Tech, during a protest on the Quadrangle in April 2011.
We at the Wheel commend the formation of this Committee and find that the tasks they have been entrusted with are necessary. We also feel the goals of the Committee are concrete enough to be effective.
One of the Committee’s main goals is to “protect the rights and responsibilities of community members,” as stated in the Task Force’s Respect for Freedom of Expression Policy, released in April. The Committee seeks to clarify its regulations for protests, a concern that has come up frequently in recent years, as enforcement of the University’s policies surrounding protest prompted controversy – and, in one case, arrests.
As part of the Students and Workers in Solidarity-led Sodexo protests, seven people were forcibly removed and arrested by police on the Quad. They were held in DeKalb County Jail on April 25, 2011. The group was holding a camp-out protest on the lawn for five days when the arrests occurred. This happened partly because of University regulations that require students to reserve the Quad two weeks in advance for activities, and there was confusion over whether the space had been reserved or not.
The Committee seems to be an effort to encourage fruitful and successful protests and to guard community members from extreme outcomes like those that dramatically ended the Sodexo protests.
The protests that occurred last March during the opening of the Woodruff Library’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) archive exhibits – which saw students and faculty members holding dissent signs and passing out flyers during speeches from Wagner and SCLC leaders – occurred peacefully and without any prohibitory action from the Administration. Such a protest would not have been in violation of the new Freedom of Expression policy.
Enforcement of these policies falls under the authority of Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair – not the police, except in emergency situations. The forcible ending of a protest event is listed as a “most serious step.”
The Committee for Open Expression seeks to educate and train protesters about University policies, which we feel is an essential preventative measure that may lessen the likelihood of a future protest ending similarly to the 2011 Sodexo protests. While there are a number of bureaucratic limitations on the ways in which Emory community members can protest, we feel that these limitations aren’t there to infringe on freedom of speech; they work to protect the rights of others. Policies that limit protests on roads and sidewalks allow others to get to class or work, and control of protests that violate noise level ordinances at night help others get a good night’s sleep.
Even so, the policy goes on to say that the Committee understands the often spontaneous nature of protests and ensures that protests will continue unless they “unreasonably interfer[e] with prior scheduled meetings, events, or essential operations of the University.”
We support the decision to have a plurality of five students on the Committee, as well as four faculty members, three staff members and a representative from Campus Life. Protests can happen at any level in the community, and we believe that the composition of the Committee accurately reflects that.
The Committee serves as a kind of judicial body for whether a protest is in violation of University policy or not. While the Freedom of Expression Policy cannot guarantee that all protests will be successful and does not cover all potential scenarios – especially those dealing with punishment of protesters that violate the policy – we feel that it serves as an effective framework to create a more defined and clear policy over time. We support the Committee’s formation and hope it will help foster successful protests and effective expressions of dissent in the Emory community.
The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel‘s editorial board.