Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – October 2017

Students sanctioned for peaceful protest during homecoming weekend

Troy, NY

Officials at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) denied students’ application to host a peaceful demonstration during homecoming weekend in October 2017. They wanted to protest the transition of control over their student union, which is now under university administration purview rather than being student-run. Following the denial of this application, which was the second one rejected by RPI administrators, students occupied the prohibited area anyway, and the university took disciplinary action against them.

Key Players

Save the Union, a student-led effort at RPI, was formed in March 2016 when it became clear that control of the student union was being transferred from the student body to the university administration.

Bryan Johns and Michael Gardner, students at RPI, were charged with breaking university policy by distributing materials advertising the protest. Johns was also the student who had initially applied for the permit for a peaceful demonstration on October 13, 2017, during homecoming.

Michael Arno is director of student rights, responsibilities, and judicial affairs at RPI. On November 1, 2017, he delivered an incident report to Johns and Gardner that documented their involvement in the unsanctioned demonstration. Arno had reportedly seen the two protesting that day, but said nothing to them at the time. This incident report began a judicial process that ended on December 12, 2017, when Johns and Gardner were notified that they had been found not responsible for breaking university policies. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) had pressured RPI to make this decision.

Travis Apgar is assistant vice president for student life and dean of students at RPI, and has been the point of contact with the student body regarding the ongoing debate over the administration of the union. He sent the letter to Johns and Gardner clearing them of any charges of wrongdoing.

Further Details

On September 28, 2017, RPI students applied for a permit for a peaceful demonstration on homecoming weekend. Apgar denied this request in an October 4 letter to Johns, one of the student organizers for Save the Union. The students had requested permission to demonstrate in a location near to a planned black-tie event hosted by Shirley Ann Jackson, RPI’s President.

After its request to protest was denied, Save the Union wrote an open letter to the RPI community inviting students to the “Rensselaer Union Lab Safety Class,” to be held at 4 pm on Friday, October 13, 2017. The organizers called on their fellow students to join them in wearing lab safety goggles and black clothing to “mourn the loss of the student union.”

Ahead of the unsanctioned protest, the university erected fences throughout campus in order to separate any potential demonstrators from visiting alumni. Administrators also tore down Save the Union signs the morning of October 13. A video of this action appeared on Youtube.

After Johns and Gardner were charged with violating certain university policies for distribution of advertising materials in a residence hall, the NYCLU intervened with a letter to the administration. It read, in part:

“We are concerned because . . . 1) the alleged policy regarding prior authorization before distributing flyers in residence halls does not actually seem to exist and it also seems to be in violation of the Student Bill of Rights, which guarantees free expression. It is very worrisome that RPI would essentially make up a non-existent policy to try to chill free expression by students, and then resort to such absurdities as claiming it falls under the policy on Operating a Business; […] 3) it appears that Michael Gardner and Bryan Johns may have been singled out in a retaliatory manner based on prior events; […] and 5) the letters which warn that an apparently non-existent policy must be followed in the future chill free expression.”

Outcome

RPI named one of worst colleges for Free Speech in 2018

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), RPI has a long history of censoring controversial opinions on campus. On February 13, 2018, FIRE listed it as one of the worst colleges for Free Speech in 2018, largely because of this incident.

University retains control of union

After the unsanctioned homecoming protest, Save the Union continued its efforts to regain student control of the union. However, the student union remains under the control of the university administration.

External Resources

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Prohibition on Homecoming Demonstrations, FIRE.org

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – Student Response to Denial of Application for Approval of Peaceful Demonstration – October 5, 2017, FIRE.org

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – Denial of Application for Approval of Peaceful Demonstration – October 4, 2017, FIRE.org

Travis Apgar Email on Clarification on the hiring of the Director of the Union Position – September 20, 2017, Savetheunion.xyz

New York Civil Liberties Union Letter to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, December 21, 2017, FIRE.org

Save the Union website

Dean of Students Office begins judicial inquiries into protest participation, The Polytechnic

The 10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech: 2018, FIRE.org

Video of Save the Union signs being torn down, Youtube

Prepared by Emma Vahey ‘20

Uploaded March 19, 2018