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Student Government Recommends Changes to Handbook’s Protest Policy

Will DiGravio, News Editor

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The Student Government Association (SGA) passed a resolution at their April 23 meeting that recommended a series of changes to the “Demonstrations and Protests” section of the College Handbook.

The bill aims to change the language of the Handbook in order to better protect the rights of student protestors. The bill was authored and sponsored by Community Council Co-Chair Travis Wayne Sanderson ’19 and Brainerd Senator and Community Council Co-Chair-Elect Kyle Wright ’19.5.

According to current Handbook language, any violation of the College’s “Demonstrations and Protests” policy “may result in College discipline.” It also states that “disruption may also result in arrest and criminal charges such as disorderly conduct or trespass.” The first recommendation made by the bill is to change the word “disruption” in the final sentence to “violent disruption.”

“Currently, as the policy stands, any form of disruption can be responded to with arrest or criminal charges. Disruption is defined in the policy as including the holding of signs, so technically speaking, if the policy says that you can respond to the holding of signs with criminal charges, there’s a problem,” Sanderson said. “We wanted to refine that so it just said violent, so that it narrowed the scope by which you could have such severe consequences.”

The second recommendation is to alter the Handbook policy that reads: “Distribution of materials such as leaflets may not be confrontational and must allow people to decline to receive the materials.” The resolution calls for the removal of the phrase “may not be confrontational.” Sanderson said that the current language is “ridiculous” and seemed “relatively easy to fix,” and that there was no conflict within the SGA itself over the recommendation.

Another recommendation is to insert language into the Handbook that explicitly prevents Public Safety officers from using violent force. The language reads: “Public Safety, as well as outside security and contractors hired by Middlebury College or its affiliates, not including state or federal law enforcement, may not use violent force against students unless they, or another individual, are first acted upon violently by those students.”

According to Sanderson, the recommendation is simply putting into words what Public Safety already practices.  

“There was absolutely no clarification as to the situations in which Public Safety could use violent force as a tactic for response,” Wright said. “Though Public Safety has clarified to the Community Council that it is not their practice to use violence in responding to cases of disruption or protest, the fact that that language wasn’t clarified, I think, for us, left it far too open-ended.”

The resolution comes as the College is investigating more than 70 students it believes may be subject to disciplinary procedures for participating in the protests that prevented Dr. Charles Murray from delivering a scheduled lecture on March 2. According to the College, more than 30 students have already accepted disciplinary sanctions.

Wright and Sanderson’s resolution recommends that the College “reconsider any discipline leveled against students involved in the protests against Charles Murray and Middlebury College that were founded in the wording of the college Handbook prior to the passing of this bill.” In short, if the resolution were to be implemented by the College, then the new Handbook language would be retroactively applied to those who participated in the March 2 protests.

Sanderson justified retroactively applying the changes by citing a Nov. 13 protest against President-elect Donald Trump, after which the College did not enforce its own policies.

“According to the policy, that [protest] could have been defined as disruptive and not designated. The protest policy calls for having a designated protest area, having it approved by public safety, etc. We had none of that, there was no enforcement [of the policy],” Sanderson said.

He argued that since current policies are not consistently enforced, it is not fair for the College to discipline students.

“Given the fact that there was no enforcement of the policy until it was convenient, there’s a problem. If you are only enforcing the policy as a means to attack, which is exactly what’s happening now, what needs to happen is the commitment to enforce the policy in a more consistent and more neutral way,” he said.

“If you have one, a policy that they only enforce when [the College] wants to, and two, a policy that is not complete to begin with, then I don’t believe that policy is a valid thing by which to judge people because it’s not objective in the first place, it’s not fully thought out. If you have a policy that is not fully thought out, a policy that is not being enforced fully in the first place, then that should not be used to punish protesters, regardless of the fact that it happened before the [proposed] policy changes happened.”

Wright agreed, citing retroactive action as a norm used by legislative bodies.

“If we’re trying to make a philosophical case for why retroactive action works, there are laws passed through Congress all the time that work retroactively, because the conversation has never been about adherence to the rules, it’s been about whether or not those rules are just,” he said. “If they’re not in the best interest of the student body, I don’t know why we would have a precedent wherein everything that was done in the case of that rule remains valid. We’re hoping to have a talk not about rules and adherence to rules necessarily, but whether or not those rules exclude or include people in ways that are meaningful to people on this campus.”

The SGA Senate passed the resolution 10-3-1. First-Year Senator Jack Goldfield ’20, Cook Senator Connor McCormick ’18, and Feb Senator Rae Aaron ’19.5 voted against the resolution.

Aaron said that she supported making changes to the College Handbook’s current protest policies; however, she disagreed with retroactively applying them to the Murray-investigations.

“In order to make effective long term updates to the College’s antiquated protest policies to empower marginalized voices, the community should engage in thorough inclusive dialogue rather than make abrupt alterations to the Handbook aimed at retroactively excusing students for breaking College policies,” she said.

Vice President for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer Bill Burger said that the College has yet to conduct its regular review of the College Handbook.

“We welcome any suggestions that the community has,” he said.

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Student Government Recommends Changes to Handbook’s Protest Policy