We won’t let them silence us at Ohio University

September 19, 2017

The fight is on to defend free speech and dissent at Ohio University, and the whole campus left needs to unite in order to succeed, write Tyler Barton and Ryan Powers.

STUDENTS, STAFF and faculty at Ohio University (OU) in Athens are responding to a new interim "Freedom of Expression" policy announced earlier this month that effectively forbids political activity from important public spaces on campus.

Since the new policy was announced, organizations on campus such as the American Association of University Professors, Graduate Employee Organization, International Socialist Organization and others have publicly criticized the policy. Several are working toward a broad coalition that can pressure the university to reverse its policy.

The policy bans "demonstrations, rallies, public speechmaking, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests and similar assemblies" from taking place inside university buildings. Related revisions to the university's "Use of Outdoor Space" policy place further restrictions at several sites that have been used for political demonstrations in recent years.

In an unofficial statement from OU President Duane Nellis, the changes are explicitly described as a response to demonstrations that shook the campus last February in protest against Donald Trump's Muslim travel ban.

Occupying Baker University Center over the demand to make Ohio University a sanctuary campus
Students at Ohio University sat in over the demand for a sanctuary campus

But the new "Freedom of Expression" policy continues a long-term trend of policies intended to silence dissent at OU.

AFTER A November 2006 demonstration against the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, the university pursued disciplinary measures against organizers. Administrators claimed that the demonstration violated the university's restrictive policy on "free speech zones," which limited such demonstrations to a few isolated areas of campus.

Similarly, only weeks after the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests swept the country, the university revised its "Use of Outdoor Space" policy to identify the site of the Occupy OU encampment as "the only outdoor space on campus in which recreational tents may be pitched." Those revisions went on to state: "A group seeking to pitch tents must first obtain approval from the vice president for student affairs or designee."

Less than three years after those revisions were adopted, the university paved over the entire space with concrete. A university-run food truck sits there now.

The more recent events that apparently prompted a new "Freedom of Expression" policy began on February 1, when a coalition of socialist and anarchist students organized a large protest to demand that OU become a "sanctuary campus." That demonstration ended in a sit-in at the university's student center that resulted in the arrest of more than 70 peaceful protesters, who were charged with illegal trespassing.

While some arrestees pled "no contest" as part of a plea bargain, most of the charges were later dropped after one arrestee was found not guilty in municipal court. The judge stated that the protesters were engaging in speech that was protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The administration's inability to silence dissent through police repression led it to seek alternative methods, culminating the "Freedom of Expression" policy aimed at left-wing student groups and university workers.

Top administrators claim the policy is an attempt to protect the safety of students, going so far as to cite the fascist terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, as evidence that the restrictions are necessary.

Athens, Ohio, resident Bill Burke, who was severely injured in the Charlottesville attack, thinks otherwise:

I think it's disgusting that they are talking about the attack in Charlottesville as a reason why they have to limit the rights of students and workers to protest on campus. They don't care about students' safety because that's exactly what these protests are trying to protect. They care about maintaining the status quo by making any sort of protest ineffective.

OHIO UNIVERSITY isn't the first school to use the rise of the far right to clamp down on all dissent, and particularly left-wing protest against oppression and hate.

Since the election of Donald Trump last November, there has been a significant increase in public actions by emboldened far-right, fascist and white supremacist groups across the U.S.

Often, the right has carried out its events under the guise of "defending free speech"--in the hopes that this will make extreme, bigoted ideas seem more mainstream and paint anti-racist opponents as enemies of free speech. Despite this dishonest rhetoric, the far right's true motives are the opposite--to silence oppressed groups through state repression, deportations, murder and ultimately genocide.

Unfortunately, this has led some progressives, for understandable reasons, to conclude that the best way to confront the right is to allow public officials or campus administrations to stop them from getting a forum.

We need to be the champions of free speech, which is a basic democratic principle won through struggles of oppressed and exploited groups. To cede the higher ground to the right on this question plays into their hands.

Plus, when laws and policies are passed and implemented that give ruling institutions more power to decide what kinds of expression and political activity are acceptable, organizations and movements of the working class and oppressed groups are often the one who are targeted for restrictions and repression.

It is counterproductive to support policies and practices that empower the university to repress free expression, even if administrators claim that they are taking these steps to protect students from the far right.

Instead, left-wing activists should work to organize the power of students and especially workers to challenge the far right themselves, while opposing the domination of existing institutions.

WE NEED to defeat OU's new "Freedom of Expression" policy. Left intact, it would hamstring the ability of progressive forces to grow. Unionizing workers, campus environmentalists, feminist activists, anti-racists, antiwar organizations, pro-Palestine groups and all who wish to struggle for a better world would be put at a disadvantage.

The fight for free speech at OU must therefore include as many people as possible in order to maximize our effectiveness. Since the policy aims to isolate progressive forces from potential supporters, defeating the policy will require principled unity on the basis of claiming, defending and expanding our right to free speech.

We need a united front coalition of student, faculty and community groups that, through our combined and coordinated efforts, can mobilize many more people than any single organization could do on its own.

Environmental groups have access to networks of other environmentalists, organized graduate employees have access to other graduate employees, and so on. By utilizing our access to different networks, we will draw out the numbers required to defeat the protest ban.

This means groups with differing ideas and goals working together--for example, anti-capitalist groups working with liberal-oriented organizations that also wish to defend our right to free speech. We all need to have the right to express our independent politics while working together for common goals. As Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, we can "march separately but strike together."

In this fight, we can take inspiration from past struggles like the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. In a speech at the University of California Berkeley, then-student leader Mario Savio declared:

[I]f this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I'll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we're the raw material! But we're a bunch of raw materials that don't mean to have any process upon us, don't mean to be made into any product...We're human beings!

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

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