As Palestinian students rallied in demonstration last Friday at the Ann Arbor federal building or as graduate student instructors clamored in the Diag in recent days for a fair contract, it’s likely that few on campus gave any thought to the freedom they exercised. Protests and demonstrations may be time time-honored Ann Arbor traditions, but as they come under attack elsewhere, few are sounding the battle cry for their defense forcing some to question what universities value these days.

Paul Wong
Geoffrey Gagnon

The fact is student freedoms are facing a fight of their own on college campuses all over the country. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year that the battle over students’ rights to free speech is more than a war of words – it’s fast becoming a fight waged with policies that silence protest and minimize the rights of student groups. The publication reported that Georgetown, Kansas State, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Mississippi, just to name a few, had all enacted rules regulating how, when and where students can exercise free speech. According to some of the policies in place at schools like the University of West Virginia, administrators can decide that demonstrations are allowed only in designated “free speech zones.” Such policies that create special areas for demonstration are required to control traffic and noise that would disturb the school.

Yet, the absurdity of a policy that silences demonstration for the supposed good of the campus ignores the obvious damage such policies have on the very essence of a university community.

Fear of student activism is as old as student activism itself and certainly nothing new to this campus, or perhaps any other. And while one can only hope that the type of paranoia that spawned the University-sponsored infiltration of student groups undertaken here in the 1960s is merely a historical tidbit relegated to a by-gone era, fear of student protest is alive and well on other campuses. So much so that conventional idea that academia should value ideas, discussion, dissent and free speech is being turned upside down.

Consider the alarming news that rolled out of East Lansing last spring when labor activists at Michigan State learned that one their own was actually a university police officer placed within the group in order to monitor its activities. The Michigan State group, Students for Economic Justice, had been targeted by campus and police officials who were smart enough to figure that there could be trouble when World Bank President James Wolfensohn spoke at the school, but too dumb to realize that their “student” mole should stop patrolling the campus as a police officer if she was to be an effective informant. In the end an embarrassed administration had botched the “undercover” portion of their undercover investigation when the officer was spotted, and subsequently photographed in full uniform.

In a story that has likely forced many in Michigan State President M. Peter McPherson’s camp to question what makes them look worse – foiling their “undercover” operation, or launching it in the first place – the realities of the situation are easily lost in the comedy of the affair. McPherson has made no bones about the fact that he authorized the investigation to thwart any attempts the group might have planned to disrupt Wolfensohn’s speech. And what’s perhaps most alarming is the fact that the debacle didn’t put an end to the practice of infiltration.

Citing the need for a policy on the matter, the school’s board of trustees decided that they’d better end the controversy by making it very clear that deceiving student groups to keep an eye on their activities is appropriate if the president deems it so. The board’s September decision came after 59 members of the school’s faculty expressed their shock to McPherson in a letter that called the practice of infiltration “contrary to basic principles of political association and free speech.”

I’d echo the sentiments of these educators and go a bit further. Regardless of constitutional notions of assembly or speech, the board of trustees – a group of elected state officials – have given the green light to those who seek to trample the sort of sacred foundations that higher education should uphold.

The community of a university as a place of intellectual engagement centered on the free exchange of ideas suffers at the hands of those who dismiss the importance of protecting basic notions of assembly and free speech. For a university to send a message to students that marginalizes the importance of informed debate or restricts dissent is more than just wrong – it’s downright damaging.

Geoffrey Gagnon can be reached at ggagnon@umich.edu.

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