by Adam Steinbaugh, The Fire
Over the past several years, the administration of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — a private institution in upstate New York — has been criticized for suppressing student detractors who say the administration has been wresting control of a long-running student union. That criticism has come not only from FIRE and RPI students and faculty, but also from the local branch of the New York Civil Liberties Union and the local newspaper, which implored RPI’s administration to do some “soul-searching” about its approach to students’ freedom of expression. It has not done so, instead choosing to create a new policy that makes expression at RPI even more “controlled” by administrators.
RPI had gone to great lengths to deter and harass its student critics, including repeatedly denying permission to hold peaceful demonstrations, erecting fences to prevent those demonstrations, tearing down signs critical of the administration, hiring local police to film demonstrators, and charging students with “solicitation” for the offense of handing out a letter without permission.
RPI has previously claimed that its students need permission, in advance, to hand out flyers or letters anywhere on campus. This is because, according to RPI’s lawyer, the university wants a “controlled environment” for speech.
But, as FIRE pointed out, there was no such policy — and even if it existed, requiring students to get permission from an administrator to hand out a flyer on campus cannot be squared with a commitment to freedom of expression. (Because RPI is a private institution, the First Amendment does not compel it to recognize students’ expressive rights, but RPI nevertheless promises to do so.) The NYCLU went further, questioning why RPI’s administration was enforcing policies that did not appear to exist.
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