When it comes to open expression, keep the conversation open

By EDITORIAL BOARD

SARAH FAGAN

A couple weeks ago, an email popped up in your Middlebury inbox from the Office of the President. In it, President Patton introduced the student handbook’s new Policy on Open Expression (section A.5) and revised Demonstration Regulations (section C.4). As Patton outlined in her email, these new documents replace the old Demonstrations and Protests policy and represent the culmination not only of a host of open meetings, but two policy drafts (one released November 18, 2018 and a second on May 19, 2019).  

You might not have read the new policies. We don’t blame you (after clicking on the link, our own impulse was to retreat fairly quickly, cowed by multiple pages of sub-clauses and hyperlinks). Still, we think what’s there — FAQ, resource page and all — is worth your time.

For one thing, we applaud the administration’s willingness to engage with criticism of previous drafts. A lot of students’ and faculty members’ feedback was acknowledged and included in the alterations. For instance, the new policy loosens restrictions prohibiting college staff from participating in protests, acknowledging that staff, too, have the right to open expression.

On that note, we deeply appreciate the new policy’s acknowledgement of the value of protest and expression. Where the old C.4 policy briefly affirmed that members of the Middlebury community “should always be free to support causes by orderly means,” and then  turned immediately to the more legal and punitive stipulations of the protest policy, the new Policy on Open Expression devotes multiple paragraphs to the importance and legitimacy of peaceful protest and demonstration. It even recognizes that learning “occurs inside and outside the classroom, often involving public speech and action through which people affirm and enact their values” — allowing, in other words, that student activism and protest are not only important, but vital, educating tools for bringing about change on campus.

Finally, we applaud the new policy for its thoroughness. Sure, there are too many documents and pages for most students to parse through en route to class, or in between lengthy political science readings. Still, we appreciate the edifying impulse behind the FAQ’s lengthy itemization of “non-substantially disruptive acts,” and the list of links on the “Resources on Speech and Inclusion” page. We also appreciate the policy’s clear detailing of consequences for violating policy; now, students can go online and determine the fairly specific repercussions of certain actions. A student who is “warned, asked to leave, refuses and/or must be escorted or arrested by law enforcement officers,” for instance, will “ordinarily” face “probationary status to letter of official college discipline, depending on the severity of the disruption.”

To clarify: We don’t think the new policies are perfect. In fact, as student journalists, we’re sort of dying to give them an edit. Not only is the language difficult to decipher, but at times the policies read almost as though they were intentionally written to be vague or convoluted. We understand that college documents often adopt an elevated tone. But  as policies primarily geared at student activists (not to mention, published as part of the student handbook), shouldn’t they be written with a student audience in mind? Unnecessarily elevated or vague language only reinforces the confusion and disconnect between students and the administration which often surrounds Middlebury protests in the first place. To that end, we’d also scrap some of the more jargon-y additions — phrases like “robust public sphere” more closely resemble the stuff of admissions pamphlets than they do concise, clear protest policy. Most student readers are less interested in sweeping statements of purpose and more interested in concrete details about how to stand up for what they believe in without incurring major consequences.

And then there’s the question of the policy itself. Taken together, the revised C.4 and new A.5 bring with them a couple of significant changes for Middlebury students activists. Now, student protesters are required not only to submit an “Event Scheduling Request,” but to sit down with the event management office and Public Safety to review any relevant policies or issues. While clauses like these don’t differ too much from the stuff of other colleges’ policies (Amherst, for instance, likewise makes students register with either college police, student activities or events), only time will tell how the new rules will play out in Middlebury’s own activist culture. In the event that these policies aren’t effective on Middlebury’s campus, we hope the administration remains responsive to feedback going forward.

To that end, we encourage students not only to continue to voice their opinions on the policies in question, but to hold the college accountable to the promises and values included in them. The FAQ states, for instance, that Middlebury is committed to an “everyday ethic of inclusion” and seeks to “make Middlebury a place where everyone’s voice can be heard.” That’s great, but begs the question — how? Statements like those would benefit from the same kind of specificity that was used to distinguish “substantive” from “non-substantive” disruption, or that which was used to outline potential consequences. Just as a multitude of conversations went into the creation of the new policies, so too should many more conversations arise from them.

In the wake of these new policies, Director of Public Safety Lisa Burchard is offering an inaugural J-Term workshop about “Activism on Campus.” Like the new policies, we think this workshop constitutes a step in the right direction. Again, we appreciate Public Safety’s willingness to engage with the subject. That said, the course description reads as slightly prescriptive; we’re not so sure Public Safety knows what constitutes “effective” protesting any better than we do. We hope the workshop looks more like a two-sided, mutually-instructive conversation, rather than a top-down lecture or course. We also hope that, if enough students show interest, Public Safety expands the course (or makes the information available elsewhere). 

At the end of the day, students and administrators’ definitions of what constitutes “effective”— even acceptable — protesting will likely always differ. In the wake of the Murray and Legutko incidents, however, it’s especially important that the administration make their guidelines and policies as clear and accessible as possible. It’s equally important that students do their homework to understand the risks they’re taking and the consequences they’re incurring.

It’s also worth noting that not all effective student protesting takes place within guidelines. The recent Harvard-Yale football game protest reaffirmed that there are causes, like climate change, whose importance outstrips any kind of administration-imposed consequence. Often, breaking rules or coming up with creative methods of protest represent powerful statements in themselves. Still, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the rules (not to mention, ensuring that those rules seem fair). That way, you can stand confidently behind whatever statement you’re making, and how.