Fordham takes stand on protests after school shooting
by Michael Jack O’Brien
What do you define as free speech? In our age of hyper-politicization, the definition of free speech has become gray with well-founded opinions and hate-speech intersecting on social media. Fordham University and free speech have had, well to put it lightly, a complicated relationship. While Fordham claims to be champions of peaceful and respectful student demonstrations it has also shown on multiple occasions to be rather controlling of student speech and protest. The latest chapter in this story occurred last week when the Office of the President released a statement regarding demonstrations against gun violence. The letter reads the following
“The University strongly advocates that our students turn their concern into action by leading letter-writing campaigns to Washington and to the legislatures in their home states. This is an essential step if we wish to effect change. Fordham University affirms that it is not only a civic responsibility to curtail gun violence, but a mandate dictated by Catholic, Jesuit teachings on the the sanctity of life. In accord with that position and the University’s demonstration policy, currently enrolled Fordham students will face no student conduct sanctions for peaceful and respectful demonstrations against gun violence on or off campus.”
The letter was sent in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, where 17 students and faculty lost their lives. But more important than that, is the massive mobilization of young Americans unified in calls for gun safety laws. This movement has created waves in the American political sphere, and while traditionally calls for gun control were led by adults, this time it appears that students are leading the charge, headed by student activists such as Emma Gonzales and David Hogg, two students of Stoneman Douglas that had watched as their friends and classmates were gunned down, and are dedicated to the cause of #NeverAgain.
A statement by Fordham reassuring its faculty and student body that protest regarding gun control will not lead to reprimand is heartening, but also raises questions regarding the universities past behavior on student led demonstration. For example, it’s been less than a year since members of the student activist group Fordham Students United were barred from entering the campus during Spring Weekend due to a demonstration at Cuniffe House in which students attempted to enter the building without “prior authorization” by the University. This occurred only months after another incident where Lincoln Center student Sapphira Lurie was charged with violating the universities demonstration policies when she organized a rally in support of the banned student organization Students for Justice in Palestine. While some might believe that these were isolated incidents, the incidents show a trend in how the university deals with student demonstrations that in one form or another violates school policy.
The new statement by the administration uses the term “peaceful and respectful protest” to describe demonstrations that are in line with school policy. However, this is not the only parameter that needs to be met. The student handbook’s demonstration policy shows a litany of requirements for what Fordham calls “peaceful and respectful protest” including that demonstrations must not physically hinder entrances or exits to buildings, create any disruptive volume of noise, or congregate in any building in which doing so would disrupt that building’s purpose. Moreover, all demonstrations must be approved by the Dean of Students and include a public safety escort. Demonstrations in progress by students must be ceased immediately if the administration believes that the movement had violated school policy, and continuing to protest is grounds for school reprimand.
One does not need to be a comedian to understand the irony of this situation. Protests in their nature are designed to be disruptive, to demand attention. With this in mind, it can be argued that the policies set out by the school regarding on-campus demonstrations are deliberately restrictive. While you can protest, said protest must be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible, which as previously stated, is the exact opposite of what protests aim to do. We must ask then if these policies are violations of free speech. What responsibility does Fordham have to its students? In truth, the answer is not much, Fordham can only be held accountable for the safety and conduct of their students; and moreover, have no obligation to allow free speech on their private property, as they are not a governmental body.
In conclusion, while the statement by the administration is a good sign regarding student protests, we cannot forget that underneath these statements are policies that are inherently designed to be restrictive and obtrusive, stifling the ability for students to effectively demonstrate. As shown by the massive uproar and backlash against the student activists fighting for gun control, with some far right pundits even going so far as to call them “actors”, there will always be disdain for student demonstration, it is yet to be seen if the same will be true for Fordham in the near future.