TROY, N.Y. — Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute administrators are doubling down on their crusade to stamp out student criticism. The school is bringing disciplinary charges against students who participated in a peaceful demonstration last month, even accusing one student of “operating a business” because he distributed a flyer criticizing Rensselaer’s administration. Earlier this week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to Rensselaer — for the third time this fall — to condemn the charges and demand the school respect student expression.
After denying students permission to hold a peaceful demonstration outside of the institute’s black-tie fundraiser on dubious grounds, administrators tore down signs criticizing the school, and they now seek to discipline students who spoke to local reporters about the dispute. The school has targeted two students who were interviewed by television news stations, arguing that they are responsible for failing to prevent others from demonstrating.
“Rensselaer promises to respect freedom of expression, but in reality is suppressing dissent on campus,” said FIRE Senior Program Officer Adam Steinbaugh. “Instead of scrutinizing students exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate, Rensselaer needs to scrutinize its own policies and practices.”
Students have argued with Rensselaer for years over what they see as a power grab by the administration to assert more control over the 127-year-old, student-run Rensselaer Union. The union advocates for students, controls the student activity fee, d provides resources to more than 200 student organizations. The union also houses a bookstore, meeting rooms, and other student services.
FIRE’s latest letter calls on Rensselaer to revise its expression policies and honor its own commitment to freedom of expression, which is required to maintain Rensselaer’s accreditation.
Though Rensselaer is a private institution and not bound by the First Amendment, the institution explicitly promises that its students will enjoy freedom of speech and assembly, as they are “citizen[s] of the nation at large, and [Rensselaer] shall not impede or obstruct students in the exercise of their fundamental rights as citizens.” Rensselaer administrators have embarked on a course of conduct that is the exact opposite of a demonstrated commitment to freedom of expression:
- In April 2016, Rensselaer refused to grant students permission to hold a demonstration outside of a town hall meeting conducted by Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. Students peacefully demonstrated anyway.
- The same month, security officers intercepted students while they were posting “Save the Union” signs. When students informed the officers that the Student Handbook permitted them to post the signs, the officers responded — in audio captured on tape — that “today’s a different story” because prospective students would be on campus, and that the change was “coming from the top.”
- Before dawn on the morning of the October 2017 demonstration, Rensselaer employees scoured the campus for “Save the Union” signs and tore them down. This pre-dawn censorship was caught on tape.
- Rensselaer again refused to grant permission to students to hold a peaceful demonstration outside the October black-tie fundraiser, or anytime during homecoming weekend, then built a fence to keep demonstrators away from the event.
- Now, Rensselaer has initiated two separate campus judicial proceedings against students who appeared in television interviews criticizing the institution.
“If Rensselaer does not do a quick about-face and abandon its course of conduct, the institute should have to explain, to its accreditor, the disparity between its promises and its conduct,” said Steinbaugh. “Rensselaer can easily avoid that predicament by dropping the charges, admitting it can do better, and reforming the policies that led it down this path.”
The institution earns a “red light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database because it maintains policies that “clearly and substantially” restrict freedom of speech.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.