November 12, 2013

Ensuring safe and fair protest

Committee on Dissent and Protest must urge explicit UCPD policies that align with University philosophy.

Responding to controversy over police conduct during protests in early 2013 at the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC), Provost Thomas Rosenbaum assembled an Ad Hoc Committee on Dissent and Protest, which is currently reevaluating campus protest policies. The Committee has been soliciting input from the University community and is approaching its December deadline. Questions that the Committee is charged with reviewing include whether guidelines for protest are the same for University affiliates and community members, whether or not protests in hospitals or other healthcare facilities should be treated differently than those in administrative or instructional buildings, and what the expectations are for communication between protestors, University staff, and police. In response to these questions and others, the Editorial Board offers the following framework for a new dissent and protest policy.

First and foremost, both University affiliates and unaffiliated community members should be treated equally concerning what kinds of protest are grounds for arrest. This means that the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) should not have to discern whether a protester is University-affiliated or not to determine whether her action warrants punishment. The protection of all perspectives is the only way the University can properly uphold its “absolute commitment” to open inquiry. The University’s actions—especially with regards to issues such as operating an adult level-1 trauma center, which the protests at the UCMC addressed—have consequences beyond campus. Discouraging outside perspectives by treating community members differently than students creates a disturbing atmosphere where the speech of University affiliates is more protected than that of non-University affiliates.

Corresponding with such a commitment to protect open inquiry for all perspectives, communication among protesters, the administration, and UCPD should be unequivocally clear. In a May 2013 open letter to University President Robert Zimmer and Rosenbaum, top administrators requested that the UCPD draft and implement orders that define the “appropriate use of plainclothes officers.” Since then, the UCPD has not issued a public statement clarifying its policies, which demonstrates a lack of communication between the UCPD, the administration, and the constituents it protects. The UCPD needs to act upon such requests immediately in order to hold itself accountable for actions that the administration has deemed “antithetical” to University values.

For example, the UCPD’s guidelines for arrest of University and community members should be articulated to protesters consistently in both the University’s dissent and protest rules and the UCPD’s general orders. The actions that each party takes surrounding a protest or demonstration should not be unexpected or disturbing to the other parties. Assigning explicit guidelines and policies that are aligned with both University and UCPD philosophies is a step in the right direction that the administration should facilitate immediately.

Two such policies stand out for the Committee on Dissent and Protest to address. For one, any reforms to the disciplinary code should contain specific guidance for when the UCPD can arrest a demonstrator. Some necessary—and perhaps even sufficient—guidelines are that the protestor must (1) know that there is a potential for arrest, (2) have had a chance to express her idea, and (3) be jeopardizing the safety or hindering the work of other students or community members. The administration and UCPD must make arrest guidelines clear to protesters when communicating logistics with them. Additionally, there is no demonstration that warrants the use of plainclothes officers, and the policy that the UCPD drafts should express that absolutely. The possibility that a UCPD official is undercover creates an unsettling backdrop for protest and is unacceptable and inconsistent with University ideals of free speech.

The University should be commended for the steps it has taken toward protecting open discourse on campus. However, any policies that the Committee drafts should include some sort of follow-through mechanism to ensure that the UCPD is clear about when and how it should act during peaceful protest. The ability to both protect principles and act upon them is the key to fostering an environment that is conducive to the rigorous open discourse on which the University prides itself.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.