TOP HAT

RPI foils free speech again

Hello RPI,

I hope you had an enjoyable Spring Break, and that it gave you the chance to recharge before we begin our last leg of the academic year. As a quick reminder, election season is well underway, and it is not too late to run for office! For any questions on elections and campaigning, feel free to reach out to Elections Commission Chairperson Caleb Caraway ’19 at union-elections@rpi.edu.

Today, I would like to address a concern that has been developing for a few weeks pertaining to the rights of students on campus. Prior to and during the annual Big Red Freakout! hockey game, students were standing on public sidewalks near the Houston Field House, handing out buttons promoting “Renew Rensselaer” to event attendees as they streamed into the game. Shortly after administrators arrived at the event, these students were approached by Department of Public Safety officers and were instructed to cease handing out such materials, citing RPI’s “eminent domain” over the roads leading to the Houston Field House during hockey games.

Firstly, the obvious issue at play is RPI’s flawed usage of “eminent domain,” which Cornell Law defines as “The power of the government to take private property and convert it into public use.” RPI, a private entity, does not have the authority to dismiss individuals from public property, regardless of day, time, or nearby events on campus. This concern has already been raised by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that defends civil liberties on college campuses, and a representative from the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York’s affiliate for the American Civil Liberties Union. Unfortunately, FIRE has had to monitor RPI closely after the many alarming events that have occurred over the past two years, and the organization has now sent four letters—since October 2017—to the RPI administration to address their concerns.

The administration has not refuted that the students were removed from a public sidewalk but, regardless of property ownership, RPI students have the right to stand up for causes they believe in. Our Rensselaer Handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities does not contain provisions against students sharing materials on campus, yet administrators have cited the section of the Handbook that stipulates facilities must be reserved in advance as a defense for the removal of the students; however, this is not relevant to students exercising the right to free expression both in and out of the classroom, a right RPI has committed to providing its students. Furthermore, these policies certainly don’t apply to off-campus outdoor spaces. The clause against “operating a business” on campus has also been cited in recent judicial attempts against students, even though students’ opinions by no means constitute a business entity.

College is a time for critical thinking, exploring the morals and ethics of the world around us, and developing our own well-informed views. Our students are exceptionally skilled at this; perhaps this speaks to either the caliber of the students RPI enrolls, or the values our faculty instill in us through their curricula. Regardless, stifling students’ voices through the manipulation and even outright fabrication of policies and laws does not set a good example for our students. I urge our administration to uphold and promote our collegiate values, especially in the pursuit of “Knowledge & Thoroughness.” I believe we should take pride in the thoroughness our students demonstrate in their thoughts, opinions, and research. And I urge students to always use your voices, to recognize that RPI guarantees freedom of speech and expression, and to stand up for yourselves if those rights are being threatened.

As always, I implore students to keep making their voices heard, to stand by what they believe in, and to always question the assumed. Above all, remember that you  have rights. If you have any questions, comments, ideas, or concerns, please feel free to reach out to me at gm@rpi.edu.