The images from the University of California, Davis are shocking. A row of people sit in solidarity with the Occupy movement. Their arms are linked, and their heads are bowed. Above them strolls a helmeted police officer applying a heavy coat of pepper spray to their heads and faces with the efficiency and seeming indifference of a robotic arm in a paint shop. The video, showing the extensive use of pepper spray against non-violent protesters, immediately strikes as an inexplicable and indefensible overreaction and abuse of power. On Nov. 29, University students held a vigil on the Diag in support of UC-Davis and UC-Berkeley students. The use of pepper spray on non-violent protesters is inhumane, unethical and unconstitutional. The health of our democracy and the vitality of the college campus as a haven for non-violent social protest rely on a police force that protects free speech, not brutalizes it.

We are fortunate that the University has a deep and proud history of non-violent protest, dating back to the 1960s anti-Vietnam War protests. Campus saw the rise and fall of the Students for a Democratic Society’s anti-war leadership. The 1970’s included the Black Action Movement’s campus-wide strike to protest low minority enrollment. These protests and their legacy of student activism have developed a community that stands firmly behind the First Amendment in its respect for peaceful protest. Our University community, however, must work actively to not only preserve free speech but also expand the right to those still silenced. 

Though much of the non-violent protests at the University have been correctly tolerated, we cannot forget the less-than-shining moments in our recent past. In April 2007, the Department of Public Safety unnecessarily arrested 12 students who had staged a sit-in at the Fleming Administration Building as part of a Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality campaign. In October 2010, the University attempted to charge a security fee to the student group Students For Life to pay for an unsolicited DPS presence to monitor protests of their event. The University eventually revoked the fee, as it is unconstitutional to financially burden a speaker because of a potential hostile reaction to her speech. These local examples as well as the news from around the country show a growing need for action to prevent the erosion of this critical liberty and further extend it to all individuals.

In response to inquiries by the university’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the University furthered its protection of speech this year as it reviewed and reformed its trespass policy. The new policy limits DPS’s discretion in banning individuals from campus and ends the practice of lifetime bans without review. Additionally, this year the University stood proudly behind History Prof. Juan Cole, as reports emerged that the CIA had targeted him as a prominent critic of the Iraq War and Middle East policy. University Provost Philip Hanlon wrote in response to the insulting news, “Free expression of views is essential to dynamic dialogue and debate.” The ACLU of Michigan sued the CIA demanding that it turn over all documents relating to professor Cole. We see the health and safety of our University and community threatened not by peaceful protesters, but by any force that threatens this free exchange of ideas. 

There is no doubt that the violence at UC-Davis illustrates the challenge protests present to university administrators, public safety departments and the larger community. The University’s protection of protest and public safety requires preparedness, communication and professionalism. The University’s values and excellence rely on DPS’s continued commitment to these goals. We call on our administration and our police force to maintain their respect for non-violent protest for any cause, at any time. This is of unique importance as the University selects a new DPS chief to uphold these principles. The excessive police force at UC-Davis must remind our campus of the need to unceasingly demand free speech for all. 

Connor Caplis is an LSA freshman and Bennett Stein is a Public Policy senior. They are members of the ACLU-UM undergraduate chapter.

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