March 23, 2006

In the Business of Making Automatons

Welcoming Big Brother
It’s been quiet around campus this week; it’s Spring break. Yet, things are brewing since a big-name politician visited the school and was heckled by 2 students—yes, two out of hundreds present. It was horrible. These two “anarchists” got up, yelled, “war criminal”, and sat down. This “unauthorized protest” took no more than a few seconds. In the ambient sounds of the auditorium and the exaltation on stage, what those poopers shouted wasn’t really audible. I was sitting near them and I couldn't understand what they were yelling about.

Most of us treat such events as a normal occurrence in a democracy. No harm done. As a matter of fact, politicians usually take the opportunity to point out how different we are from those other undemocratic countries. The “evil empire” and the “axis of evil” don’t allow for such dissent. Mad Saddam made it a serious crime to satirize & critique him—the most enlightened and gracious leader. That's over there; we have the rule of law here, and citizens have plenty of rights. We believe that our government can’t act arbitrarily outside the law, to spy on us & search our possessions us without warrant, to squelch free speech, and to make sure that our right to vote (and our votes counted accurately) will not be infringed. Well, sorry to report, not all of us Americans hold that view.

We know that the present government uses the politics of fear. The “war president” and his administration have nothing else to stand on—they’ve messed up on all matters pertaining to the common good—except to keep reminding us that we live in a time of terrorism and strong-armed policies are necessary to combat the enemy who’s everywhere, in a war without fronts & without end. Hello, Big Brother, may I take your order? All right, you say, we still have some bastions of free inquiry, discussion, and even dissent. They are our universities, where we value free speech so much that we give tenure to professors in order to shield them from the community and from those who may not like what they profess! To this I reply, not so fast! The disease of acquiescing and deferring to the wisdom of the rulers has taken hold here too.

How then would you explain that a university is considering punitive action, up to and including expulsion, against those protesting students? “They didn’t have a permit for a protest,” I heard someone of authority saying! Yes, you need to file a petition way ahead of time and obtain a permit to hold up a sign on school grounds to protest against a visiting politician! Surely, you have rights of free speech, unless the administration forgets to issue the permit in time for the event, and unless your speech is embarrassing to the powers that be. Well done. Wait, there’s more. Like many things in life, the actual event may not be of a great significance, but the reaction often makes a lot more noise. Likewise in this case, it’s not “the crime” that’s generating the controversy but the subsequent treatment of it.

After the two students sat down in their seats, the police and the Secret Service took them into custody. This on private property of a sovereign university. Without the presence of any representative from the school, the students were detained for 45 minutes. According to them, they were told that the police could detain them for 72 hours and order a psychiatric evaluation [I suppose they meant the students, not the other hotheads]; they were also asked to sign a release form so their medical records could be examined [as if the government really asks for permission nowadays]. Then the students, along with four more people in their party, were escorted to their cars. The police asked them if they had any illegal drugs in their cars, because, they were told that if they admitted the had contraband before the search took place, “it would be better.”

I don’t know what probable cause, and I mean reasonable probable cause, the police had to search the protestors vehicles, but they did and found nothing our of the ordinary. Until today, I haven’t heard a good explanation regarding what rules these students broke to justify their appalling treatment.

A recent poll showed that 49% of all Americans would give the President any authority to do whatever to keep us safe. Any! Aren’t we supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave? Ben Franklin wisely observed that those who seek to exchange liberty for safety deserve neither. Aren’t we supposed to have institutions where free speech is cultivated and dissent is an aspect of a free people engaging in a public discourse? I find it distressing that educated people entrusted with promoting knowledge & empowering the younger generations have a dim and narrow view of civic activism and political engagement.

Editor's note: In the Comments section, the official response by the University is posted.


Anonymous said...

The flooding in your office this week was just a warning....

Anonymous said...

There are two issues here. One, that the students' civil rights were violated by the police/secret service, and two, the university doesn't see that it's OK for students to protest on campus. I'm pissed off. I want to do something about it. Regarding the first issue, I know that I have to get involved and be more active. At least, until my country becomes unfree and locks me up for being an activist. As for the university where I happen to attend, it's sad that I have to remain anonymous since the persecution has already started here.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that the Pace Community is interested in pursuing this? I doubt it. Haven't seen the student body uttering a sound about it. Faculty & staff have so many other issues to pick with the university president and won't probably come to the students' aid.

Observer said...

This is the official response, so I thought I should put it up here. The reader and especially those who are part of the community of the said university can evaluate it.

"Recent events make this a good time to remind everyone of our policies fostering freedom of expression and the responsibilities that go with it.

The University enthusiastically supports free expression, inquiry and the exchange of ideas. Moreover, our longstanding policy is that we do not allow people to disrupt public meetings. Though disruptions are against disorderly conduct laws, we usually just ask hecklers to leave. Students violating university policy are subject to disciplinary actions.

Our policies are enforced in a content neutral way unless the content itself (for example, hate speech or threats of violence) violates the Guiding Principles of Conduct stated in our Student Handbook. Any students who conduct activities without observing required procedures face the same disciplinary process."

Prometheus said...

Free speech has to be exercised to be meaningful!

Some "noise" has to be tolerated as part of the political discourse. That "public meeting" was an appropriate venue for protest and the university did not give a permit to the students to demonstrate, even outside, on school grounds.

And, a permit shouldn't be required of a couple of students to utter a few seconds worth of dissent.

If the students broke some university rules, it had nothing to do with being surrendered like common criminals to the police and the Secret Service. The school should have shielded and protected its students.

Rhetoric about supporting free speech should accompany the facilitating of the said exercise.