Universities use stronger tactics as apartheid protests spread
New York — Students at more than 100 colleges and universities begin their next round of anti-apartheid demonstrations tomorrow in a climate of changing attitudes. Civil disobedience is expected to play a key role in the protests, and universities are responding with stronger counter-measures.
As organizers prepare for a series of campus protests from March 21 to April 6, administrators, students, and legal representatives for both sides are testing the university's role in disciplinary action, surveillance of students, and limiting the rights of free speech.
``In the past, with demonstrations about civil rights and Vietnam, they were things not directly controlled by the university,'' says attorney Jack Lester of the Center for Constitutional Rights. ``Here, the protests are aimed at something directly in the hands of the trustees and the university.''
``The university has a much greater stake in the results of these actions,'' said Mr. Lester, a legal adviser to student groups at five schools. ``If they're successful, the next area may be demands on decisions regarding tenure of professors, and the governance of the university in general.''
Called the National Weeks of Anti-Apartheid Action, the three-week effort targets universities still maintaining investments in companies operating in South Africa.
Administrators are likely to become more reliant on regulations to enforce order. What kinds of regulations, and how students make their views known, partly hinges on whether their university is public or private, with funding from public or private sources.
On public university grounds, ``constitutional governmental actions apply,'' notes attorney Arthur Eisenberg, of the New York Civil Liberties Union. ``Students retain their traditional rights of free speech,'' because ``university property is public property. The university cannot penalize them unless they interfere with the activity of the university.''
However, First Amendment guarantees ``don't apply to private entities,'' Mr. Eisenberg says.
``Private institutions aren't subject to constitutional restraints,'' says Claire Guthrie of the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA). The First Amendment covers places regarded as public forums. ``The issue is, what is and is not a public forum,'' with private institutions able to determine where, when, and how free speech is exercised on their property.
``Even public institutions can have regulations that regulate speech, using appropriate time, place, and manner considerations,'' explains Ms. Guthrie, whose organization sponsored a workshop on South Africa and student action for its members. ``The key is, is it disrupting the academic enterprise.''
Eisenberg points out that two cases -- Schmidt v. the State of New Jersey and Tate v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania -- established state law ``guaranteeing that their rights could not reasonably be abridged.'' If a university has made a location available ``in other contexts, such as student government campaigns, then it is eligible for any use.''
Asked if its private status has helped Boston University deal with activism, dean of student affairs Ronald Carter responded, ``Yes, very much,'' adding, ``we are concerned that they know they can protest within the rules and regulations.'' If they violate the rules, ``we will hold them to the consequences,'' which may include suspension, expulsion, or arrest.
When students duplicated other schools' shantytown protests, Mr. Carter ``met with them, and said, `That's not going to happen,' and then the police took it down. The form of the protest was just not acceptable.'' Carter states, ``We limit where they can picket or pass out literature.''
``All political groups are hassled,'' says Mark Lurie, a senior active in BU's divestment campaign. ``There's an incredible amount of paper work to get a room, to have a bake sale, anything. They do this in hopes that there will be less activism on campus.'' Mr. Lurie says it has not lessened the commitment.
Howard Zinn, a political science professor at BU for 20 years, has also noticed a change. ``The controls at BU have become much, much tighter,'' adding that one student was suspended for leaf-letting.
In addition, Dr. Zinn states that the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union has received a large volume of complaints about BU. Zinn resigned as adviser to a campus alternative newspaper rather than comply with a new rule requiring him to censor all ``questionable'' material.
``Last summer,'' Lurie recalls, ``we handed out a divestment leaflet at graduation that referred people to an address if they wanted more information. The next morning at 3 a.m. the police showed up.''
Along with potentially limiting public dissent, an administration may or may not choose to initiate disciplinary action internally, or call in the police.
At Harvard University, internal procedures were used to discipline 21 students who participated in anti-apartheid demonstrations last spring.
When police were called in at Stanford University last year to break up a demonstration, the student government, citing charges of police brutality, passed a resolution calling for a permanent police review commission and an outside investigator.
``Some campus police are authorized deputies of the state, some are not,'' NACUA's Guthrie explains. When they are not, an administration may resort to local police to end a troublesome but not violent action, such as a sit-in. ``A private citizen, which is what a security guard for the campus may be, cannot bodily carry off another private citizen. The guard stands the possibility of being charged with assault. So the university may be compelled to call the police and charge the students with trespassing.''
To retain control of the process, some universities institute changes in disciplinary procedures, or use other regulations to achieve their goals.
Following a 10-day fast by four students calling attention to Brown University's failure to divest, the university used a health-related regulation to end the action.
``We told them from the beginning that this was an acceptable form of protest, but that there were medical and liability concerns,'' said Robert Reichley, vice-president for university relations.
``We chose to separate them from the university; they were disenrolled.'' He reports that the university insisted they undergo an examination by university doctors, but ``they refused.''
Mr. Reichley concedes that ``they had several people who were attending them who were doctors.''
Students chose to fast in the campus chapel, according to spokeswoman Christine Arbor, to avoid possibly being forced to end their action by locating in a campus building, having received sanctuary status from the chaplain.
Declaring the chapel a ``medically unsafe environment,'' the university threatened to drop the students from its rolls, putting them on ``involuntary leave of absence.'' The students ended their fast.
Ms. Arbor indicated that ``we planned this as nonconfrontational from the beginning, but the university decided to make it confrontational.'' Calling the move ``really sneaky stuff,'' she says ``it wasn't a disciplinary action, which could have led to a public hearing or a public debate.''
``Despite the repression, students are politically active,'' Zinn observes. ``They don't conform to the picture that the media often use to characterize them,'' he says, ``that students today are conservative.''
``They had the courage to do what they feel they need to do. They haven't been silent,'' Zinn adds. ``No doubt the '60s has seeped into their minds.'' The only difference is one of ``behavior rather than consciousness. They are affected by the economic crunch.''
Guthrie concurs. ``These students are very civil, because they don't want to damage the opportunity to get a good job. These demonstrations are well organized and very civilly conducted.''
A possible return to antiwar-era activism is on the minds of administrators. States Carter at BU: ``Certainly, we all talk to each other. We have a sense of excitement and a sense of dread about those times. We've all been through them, and we don't want it to happen again the way it happened before. If it comes back again, we're not going to be caught off guard.''