September 26, 2017 at 6:29 pm

Students for Law, Justice & Culture Author Statement on ‘Freedom of Expression’ Policies

Students for Law, Justice & Culture logo

Statement written by Jessica Roth, Francisco Cintron, Sue Ryu, Abby Steinsieck, and Shae Woodburn
Students for Law, Justice & Culture

The Students for Law, Justice & Culture (SLJC) is a student organization closely affiliated with Ohio University’s Center for Law, Justice & Culture. We seek to create a space for students to discuss issues relating to the themes of law, justice, and culture and organize campus-wide conversations along with supporting the programming and academic endeavors of the CLJC.

As a student organization at Ohio University, we believe our relationship with the CLJC and its diverse academic outreach uniquely positions our organization to critically discuss matters related to politics and culture on the Athens campus.

On Aug. 17, 2017, the University approved and adopted two interim policies, known as the “Freedom of Expression” (No. 24.014) and the revised “Use of Outdoor Spaces on the Athens Campus” (No. 24.016) policies, in an unregulated manner. After hearing concerns from students and faculty regarding the policies’ blanket measures and limited student input, as well as administrative calls for feedback, we as members of Ohio University found it both necessary and beneficial to hold a student centered open forum to provide a space for all members of the University community to address, evaluate, and produce commentaries on the interim policies. On Sept. 19, we held an open forum from 5-7 p.m. in Walter 235 in which approximately 35 to 40 community members came together to assess the aforementioned policies. Below, we outline our conclusions based on discussions with various stakeholders, the open forum, and follow-up conversations with the University community.

We have concerns regarding the lack of clarity and consistency in the language of the policies. The vagueness in the language and structure permits sweeping discretion in the University’s interpretation and implementation of the policy. The policy consequently gives the University blanket permission to restrict and punish student expression as it sees fit. For example, in Policy 24.014 part C (4), the ambiguities in terms such as “similar assemblies” does not clearly define what constitutes a permissible form of student demonstration. Would a group of students wearing buttons to class as a form of protest violate the policy as a “similar assembly?” Policies that imply consequences to banned actions should include a clear definition of what constitutes a breach of policy and leave minimal room for discretionary judgement. Similarly, we hold concerns regarding the consequences of violating the policy, including questions of police involvement, punishment, mediation, and the University’s obligation to students’ grievances. The interim policy lacks details regarding what the University’s response will be to breaches of the policy. In order for students to make informed decisions regarding their participation in protest, the University’s procedure and response must be explicitly stated.

We would also like to address the process through which the interim policy was enacted and the ramifications of this process on students’ confidence in their administrators. The “Preparation of Policies” Policy (01.001 5a) states that an interim policy may be adopted immediately, bypassing traditional review channels, in cases of “legal requirements or administrative necessity.” The policy also indicates that “the executive staff policy committee’s recommendation shall include a complete description of the legal or administrative issues supporting the request for an interim policy.” This statement justifying the necessity for an interim policy was not released until Sept. 12, nearly a month after the policy was implemented. The “Ohio University Statement Regarding Review of Interim Policy 24.014 Freedom of Expression” cites Charlottesville and other nationwide protesting as a reason for the policy without really explaining how these interim policies “balance safety with protection of all constitutionally protected speech.”

After previous incidents of student protest and changes in university leadership, trust between students and the University has wavered, and many students have called on the University to exhibit a stronger institutional commitment to supporting active learning and civic engagement through student protest and dissent. University officials sent a university-wide email on Aug. 18, 2017—one day after the interim policies were adopted—“to reaffirm [their] commitment to our values as an inclusive community” in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Va. The email asserts that we need to “remain steadfast in committing to our values of community, inclusion, civil discourse, and free speech.” To us, the interim policies contradict our values and the responsibility of Ohio University as an institution of higher education. In the email, University leadership claim that “the value of education is to understand, explore, and study the very events that have shaped our country – both good and bad” and that “we must take solace in the power of education to guide us in these challenging times.” We as students of law and society strongly hold that demonstrations, protests, and other forms of student expression are integral to a well-rounded liberal arts education. We feel as though we must hold our University to this standard of educational engagement and challenge these policies that were justified through the protection of students and our rights. Ultimately, the University’s previous cases of breaching policy, the reliance on blanket discretion, and the inconsistency in statements regarding freedom of expression have eroded the confidence between students and their administrators.

The Students for Law, Justice & Culture call for the policies to be rewritten in accordance with the above criteria. We suggest that the policy be reframed to encompass the Five C’s—Community, Character, Civility, Citizenship, and Commitment—that constitute the values of Ohio University and its promises as an institution. Furthermore, we ask that our University values and students’ right to instruction be held at the forefront of the revision process and that they be prioritized over the University’s business endeavors and reputation. We call for genuine integration of the concerns and feedback of the Ohio University community, which necessitates a reframing of the policy and the university’s approach toward student expression. University students have rights to expression with few restrictions, rather than implying that expression is prohibited with few regulated exceptions. We are presented with a unique opportunity for Ohio University to demonstrate our commitment to students’ education and to establish ourselves as resolute advocate of free speech in a time when these very rights are being threatened across the globe.

We hope the policy reviewers prioritize community feedback and reassess their commitment to our shared values. We expect that the outcomes of the policy revision process will serve to create a culture of trust, transparency, and accountability between students and the University. We would like to thank the students, faculty members, and administrators that attended our Open Forum and participated in discussions regarding the policies and their implications in our campus community, and we look forward to further engaging in this ongoing conversation.


Students for Law, Justice & Culture

Statement written by Jessica Roth, Francisco Cintron, Sue Ryu, Abby Steinsieck, and Shae Woodburn.

See notes from Open Forum held on September 19, 2017.


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