Seeks New Policy for Protests
Nearly two years after a flustered then-Deputy
Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers departed the stage of Finney
after students publicly harangued him for his globalization policy,
the College is looking to adopt a policy that deals specifically
with protesting during public events. The General Faculty could
have voted on the issue Tuesday, but the meeting was cancelled.
Summers visited Oberlin in December 2000, speaking on the virtues
of globalization and the economic benefits it has reaped for the
United States. During Summers’s remarks, protesters shouted
comments, unfurled banners and blew on noisemakers despite frequent
requests from other audience members to stop.
Students and faculty alike condemned the handling of the event on
The revised protest/dissent policy, listed under “Guidelines
for Meetings Involving Speakers, Films and Other Forms of Artistic
Expression,” seeks to maintain an “environment where
open, vigorous debate and speech can occur.” At the same time,
however, it seeks to ensure respect for speakers, audiences and
In the policy guidelines, students are given the right to express
dissent at public events, but it “need not occupy the same
forum at the same time.”
The speaker is entitled to communicate their message to the audience
during their allotted time, and the audience is entitled to hear
the message and see the speaker during that time. The dissenter
must not substantially interfere with the speaker’s ability
to communicate or the audience’s ability to hear and see the
It also calls for a moderator to be appointed for controversial
speakers by the Dean of Students, in consultation with the sponsoring
organization and the chair of the Student Life Committee, a student/faculty
“It’s a document that’s intended to enable a reasonable
balance between the right of protesters to be heard and the right
of an invited speaker to be heard, as well as the rights of the
audience to hear the speaker,” Dean of Students Peter Goldsmith
said. “The President charged a committee, chaired by Professor
of Politics Ron Kahn, to draft a policy to handle situations that
can arise when we have a controversial speaker on campus.”
Kahn said that the committee was charged with revising and updating
a policy on the books from 1989, which wasn’t rediscovered
until 2001. The charge to the ad-hoc committee was “for clarification,”
“Our job was to update the present policy, and make sure it
was content-neutral with regard to all parties, meaning that it
wasn’t based on what people said, it was based on their actions,”
Kahn said. “What they wanted us to do was just tweak it.”
Much of the document relates to policy that allows wide latitude
for potential protesters during events.
“Picketing in an orderly way or distributing literature outside
the meeting is acceptable and must not be interfered with unless
it impedes access to the meeting,” the proposed policy states.
“Distributing literature inside an open meeting is acceptable
and must not be interfered with before a meeting is called to order
and after the meeting is adjourned.”
It also allows for silent and symbolic protests during speeches,
so long as they do not impede the enjoyment of the event by others.
The section on this topic states that “wearing expressive
clothing, gesturing, standing or otherwise protesting noiselessly
is acceptable and must not be interfered with, unless the protest
interferes with the audience’s view, or prevents the audience
from paying attention to the speaker.
“Any use of signs, prolonged standing or other activity likely
to block the view of any one in the audience should be confined
to the back of the room,” the policy adds. “Security
may confiscate signs and posters that interfere with the audience’s
view; signs and posters must be returned on request immediately
following the event.”
The clearest response to the Summers event may be in the subsection
on “Noise,” which, according to the Review’s account
of the event, was the primary factor that initially annoyed audience
“Responding vocally to the speaker, spontaneously and temporarily,
is generally acceptable,” the proposed policy reads. “Chanting,
coughing or making other sustained or repeated noise in a manner
which substantially interferes with the speaker’s communication
is not permitted, whether inside or outside the meeting.”
The proposed policy also condemns force or violence at any events.
The previous policy, dating to the late ’80s, suggested there
were times when violence might be acceptable, Dean Goldsmith said.
“In the original document, the word violence was used improperly,”
Kahn said. “We just took it out.”
“All we did was updated the document, make sure it was consistent
within itself,” he added.
“Using or threatening force or violence, such as defacing
a sign or assaulting a speaker or a member of the audience is never
permitted,” the policy asserts. “Any interference with
freedom of movement, or with freedom from personal force and violence,
is a serious violation of personal rights.”
Professor of Theater Roger Copeland, who was a member of the ad-hoc
committee that revised the policy said he was “totally supportive”
of the new revisions.
“By spelling out in great detail what does and doesn’t
constitute a violation of college policy, the new legislation removes
the subjectivity, the gray areas that often make such policies difficult
to enforce,” he said.
“Also, the revisions explicitly acknowledge one of the least
understood aspects of the First Amendment: the fact that the right
to speak must invariably be accompanied by a ‘right to hear,’”
But he expressed concern that President Dye’s administration
might not enforce the new policy.
“I worry that if the ‘Moderator/Facilitator’ is
a member of the current Administration, the carefully enunciated
policy revisions will simply go unenforced,” he said. “The
Larry Summers debacle demonstrated that members of the Dye administration,
when forced to choose between freedom of speech and the avoidance
of controversy will—all too often—sacrifice freedom
“We need facilitators who will unhesitatingly enforce the
policy rather than allow themselves to be inhibited by the fear
that the local press will publish photos of demonstrators being
physically dragged out of college-sponsored events,” he continued.
“We should be proud of this new willingness to enforce standard
First Amendment protections for both speakers and audience members.”
Socialist Alternative Leader Ted Virdone said he wasn’t pleased
with the updated policy.
“We will continue to protest based on how we interpret the
issue at hand and taking into consideration respect for the Oberlin
community,” he said. “We will not base our protesting
on whatever regulations Peter Goldsmith thinks he can use to rule