Balancing rights, regulations
Zach Wagner | Collegio Reporter
The university has no step-by-step policy on how to handle possible protests on campus and that has Lara Ismert, SGA’s academic affairs director, concerned. Ismert says this poses a potential risk for future campus protesters.
“I think that around most college campuses it would seem that students don’t get riled up about most issues, but I think there’s a lot of things going on nationwide that would possibly prompt demonstrations by students,” said Ismert, senior in English and math. “There’s no clear-cut line for our campus law enforcement on when you can get physical with students. It could just depend on the day and the person on how they will react to nonviolent protesters.”
Ismert says she plans to draft a protest policy through SGA, detailing suggestions for campus law enforcement regarding measures that should be taken with protest situations on campus.
“What I really want to do is lay out where to draw the line when handling nonviolent protesters on campus,” Ismert said. “I think having a more solid structure with students’ protesting rights would leave students less subjective to whatever methods of handling campus police choose.”
Mike McCracken, director of campus police, says the worst-case scenario for a violent protest would call for the Emergency Crisis Response group. This group, chaired by President Steve Scott, collaborates with the school’s attorneys and campus law enforcement officials to find the best course of action.
“If an organized group of individuals are compliant with enforcement, then there is no need for us to use force,” McCracken said. “It’s only if violence is present or the protest impedes the educational process is when those kinds of issues would arise.”
McCracken says that there is no need to handle nonviolent protesters similarly to a recent incident at the University of California-Davis that involved campus police using pepper spray on sitting student protesters.
“Our campus officers are not even equipped with pepper spray or tasers,” McCracken said. “I can’t see a nonviolent protest on campus being handled with any sort of force. We would actually do the best we could to negotiate with individuals in such a situation.”
Steve Erwin, associate vice president for campus life and auxiliary services, says even though there is no specific plan for handling nonviolent protests, campus officials do typically make an effort to work with student protesters, helping them go about organizing reasonable and safe demonstrations.
“Whenever there is an organized group of individuals who are aiming to put together a protest around PSU, they contact any of our campus officials and we do what we can to work with that group,” Erwin said. “So long as it does not interfere with the educational mission of the university, we allow these demonstrations to take place.”
Erwin says there is also a set policy for outside campus demonstrators, the External Speaker Policy. This External Speaker Policy contains certain restrictions and regulations that individuals would have to follow if they wanted to organize on PSU’s campus, such as no allowance of amplification devices and no interference with the educational system or the blocking of buildings or classrooms.
“If individuals have an important message they want to convey to the student body, then we encourage them to do so,” Erwin said. “It’s when the demonstrations cause some sort of violence or disruption, we’d have to call in our Emergency Crisis Response team.”
Erwin says the External Speaker Policy allows certain individuals to display signs such as “The American dream ends in hell.” Though offensive to some, it is protected by the First Amendment.
According to Erwin, the regulations for students looking to display their point of view in public are outlined under the PSU Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Under this code, students have the right to free inquiry, expression and assembly.
“We encourage free thinking. What it comes down to is their free speech rights,” Erwin said. “We haven’t had a situation where a protest turned violent or disruptive. I don’t predict that something like that will take place in the near future.”
Ismert says she plans to continue drafting the protest policy bill through SGA in the coming weeks.
“I think there definitely has to be a line that’s blatant,” Ismert said. “We need to know
at what point and when to take certain measures if a protest occurs on campus.”