The College has been in the midst of crafting a protest policy regarding Colby community members’ right to protest for at least two years. The Colby Echo has obtained a draft of such a policy dated Oct. 22, 2021 titled “Policy on Protests, Rallies, and Similar Events.” Students who have read the draft have been highly critical of what they perceive to be the limitations of protest rights and are urging the administration to reconsider the language.
While there is no current protest policy in place at Colby, there have been numerous meetings between administrative and student committees to discuss the creation of such a policy. A student who has attended some of these meetings explained that the administration feels that the absence of such a policy undermines students’ right to protest.
The language in this particular draft, however, has angered several students. Many feel that it hypocritically limits students’ rights to free speech and may, in some ways, be a response to the student protests at the football game on Oct. 2, 2021.
While the draft explicitly “[affirms] the liberating power of protest” as “an essential tool in the hands of those seeking to dismantle injustices and transform institutions,” it also establishes limits on what it terms to be “significant disruptions,” in addition to activities that either constitute harassment and intimidation or that impede the expression rights of others.
After speaking with administration, one student acknowledged that although the language in the draft was ambiguous and somewhat contradictory, “the perspective I was given from administration definitely made it seem that [the protest restrictions weren’t] as clear-cut as I think it reads to be.”
The draft begins by affirming that “Colby College has embraced a deep and abiding commitment to the freedom to express ideas, views and opinions, as well as the freedom to inquire … This includes the right to disagree through protest.”
It then clarifies that “the right to protest does not include: Activity that constitutes harassment or intimidation, causes injury, or shuts down the expression rights of others; or Activity that violates the law; or Activity that substantially disrupts the educational, community or residential experience of students, staff, or faculty, including teaching, study, and research, and the work to ensure a rich living and learning environment at the College.”
Such restrictions are similar to those outlined in the protest policies at other comparable colleges and universities. Bowdoin’s On-Campus Noise Policy, for example, states that “students may not engage in organized demonstrations (for example, rallies or speak-outs) in which the noise level disrupts the educational processes of the College.” Bate’s protest policy states that “the public expression of views and opinions may not prevent, unduly obstruct, or interfere with the normal operations of the college.”
Examples of substantially disruptful activities outlined in the draft include “shutting down a class or lecture,” “persistent activity, following direction, guidance or warnings, which shuts down or substantially delays a Colby community activity,” and “loud activity which continuously disrupts designated quiet hours.”
Violations of the outlined protest requirements will be evaluated on “a tiered system of actions and consequences,” according to the draft. These repercussions could include, but are not limited to, disciplinary warnings or community service for minor infractions, loss of social, housing, or extracurricular eligibility for more severe infractions, along with loss of opportunity for leadership positions and campus employment, and suspension or expulsion for serious infractions that cause “significant risk of, or actual harm or injury to members of the Colby community or which substantially disrupts or causes the ongoing suspension of essential operations, work or learning.”
Students are particularly angered by the ban on “disruptful” forms of protest. Many feel that protests are, by definition, a form of disruption — and this is why they work.
“Changing things is going to require some form of protest or some form of uprising,” Dominic Pelosi ’23 said. “And Colby is actively punishing and suppressing those voices instead of uplifting them. You don’t have to reward them, but at the very least, listen to them and work with them when you draft future freedom of speech policy.”
A second anonymous student agreed that “the school already left very little room for protest, and these new rules effectively take away rights to assembly for students and leave all power in the hands of the administration and the board. Rather than address the issues that the protest sought to draw attention to, the College has responded by silencing dissent.”
“It’s getting rid of free speech,” added a third anonymous student.
Students also feel that the outlined system of punishment grants only a select few the opportunity to contribute to implementing change in the Colby community.
“It gives so much power to the people in charge — the institution,” Pelosi said. “I’m not calling Colby a totalitarian state or anything, but when you define the rules and you define the consequences to those rules, and you make them very subjective and up to you, it leaves a lot more in the hands of not only the institution, but also privileged Colby students.”
“As a white person, when I have attended a protest, I’ve definitely felt like the stakes were off because I didn’t have funding that Colby could pull or anything like that,” Pelosi continued. “So it really comes down to a matter of who’s able to protest, who can act, who’s actually perceptible to these punishments, and who’s left hung out to dry? And is that really the precedent that Colby wants to be setting?”
Pelosi recalled revolutionary artist Dread Scott’s talk, The Art of Liberation, at the Colby Museum’s Lunder Institute for American Art on Oct. 12, 2021. Scott has been named a 2021-2022 Colby Senior Fellow. In 1989, Scott’s exhibit What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag prompted a law that made desecration of the flag illegal in the United States. Later that year, Scott was arrested for burning the American flag on the steps of the United States Capitol in protest of the law. The Supreme Court ruled in Scott’s favor in United States v. Eichman.
“They brought Dread Scott because they celebrate this sort of artist,” Pelosi said. “He was very involved in free speech. And Colby had the opportunity to have him here, and yet we’re actively suppressing freedom of speech on campus. There’s really this clear disconnect between what Colby practices and what Colby preaches.”
“I don’t have any contempt for the actual people who are instituting these policies, because I recognize that they are just a person in a role in a giant bureaucracy, and the way that those work is that you’re supposed to just be doing your job and forget about the consequences of it,” he added. “But I guess part of the accountability is that I’m really asking them to think about their actions in a different way. Not just the people who you’re responsible for, but also the students, because you’re also responsible to us.”
Colby administration could not be reached for comment following a series of technical difficulties; a forthcoming article will integrate their comments and views. The full text of the most recent Oct. 22, 2021 draft is available for reading here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1eHFlHejHQRaZWs9NssVTDhmrY-OOBKt_/view
Additionally, any readers interested in submitting feedback or comments on the draft to the Colby administration can do so at this link: https://forms.gle/Xqj2SBCix1HeFhMa7
~ Elsa Russell `22