The mission of peaceful assemblies
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, December 5, 2017
As our path leads us past the gates of complacence and our steps take us beyond the gaits of compliance, a moment is transformed into a movement larger than the space our bodies take up marching through the streets. Where I grew up, the act of protesting was a routine expression of civic duty. I missed school a few times each year to plant my feet on the steps of the state capitol with the hopes of my cause being recognized from a young age. My experiences protesting have been formative to fostering intellectual curiosity and critical thinking. I have witnessed how peaceful assemblies are an effective physical representation of dissent that have the potential to invite productive dialogue when successfully performed. In the midst of an intensely polarized political climate, practicing peaceful expressions of opposition needed to refresh our understanding of democratic ideals.
Peaceful assemblies are a practice of activism that can take the forms of street protests, demonstrations, picket lines, sit-ins, marches, rallies and vigils. On Nov. 15, Saint Mary’s College released a statement on peaceful assemblies to the student body from the Student Affairs Council. The Nov. 15 statement describes the guidelines, procedures and tenets of compliance for organizing peaceful assemblies by students or student organizations protesting on Saint Mary’s campus. The policy’s introduction references the Saint Mary’s College mission statement, outlining our institution’s commitment to social responsibility and social action and providing a space for “open communication and dialogue.” It appears that the intention of this policy is to protect the safety of our students by regulating peaceful demonstrations on campus and ensuring activities are connected to the Saint Mary’s mission in order to prevent chaos. However, I believe that the effect of this policy is counterproductive to protecting students’ rights to protest.
With my concerns about the statement and potential policy, I initiated follow-up with the council. In a spirit of open consideration and civil discourse, my feedback was welcomed and it has been proposed that the policy be revised based on some of the following concerns.
The required peaceful assembly application may discourage students from assembling on our campus. As currently written, the application is required 72 hours before the event, during which it will be reviewed and evaluated by the Office of Student Affairs. This time frame is lengthy and may deter students from applying to assemble. The policy indicates the potential for an expedited review of an application which responds to a current event; if this is the case, the definition of a deadline could be suggested, but not required.
In addition, when Saint Mary’s sees fit and depending on the scope of the event, the College may require students to pay for security. For students without the funds to cover security costs to hold peaceful assemblies, this requirement is discriminatory. A clearer definition of the conditions under which additional security costs may be required would help students plan events accordingly.
The proposed policy prohibits contacting the media without consulting the College’s marketing and communication staff. As a student and as an adult, I would prefer to see Saint Mary’s err first on the mission-related tenet of, “[advocating] social action and [practicing] principles of justice and compassion” before any concerns it may have about marketing. Saint Mary’s does well to hold fast to the belief that we embrace and respect for members of our community; this community can include people reached by media platforms.
As a college student at Saint Mary’s, I appreciate the effort of my institution to keep students informed of the new policies enacted by administrative committees. I believe that the intention of my institution is to create inclusive and comfortable spaces for all students; also, I believe it is the responsibility of students to see this process to the end, as collaborative participants.
Colleges and universities can rightfully apply policies to ensure safety and peace on campus. However, such policies could simply require the free entrance to all facilities on campus, maintenance of the general operations of a college without great disruption and prohibit any violation of the safety and well-being of the campus community. What is missed by too many institutional policies related to peaceful assembly is an acknowledgement of rights of students to assemble (under the constitution) that does not seem restrictive. College students are taught to question reality with the vision and hope of making change. Our mission reminds us to “[be] alert and responsive to programming, curriculum and policies that reflect women’s interests.” Thus, as we await and review the revisions of this policy, we must ensure that this policy, along with all other policies that apply to students, is faithful to Saint Mary’s institutional mission.