A Conversation about the Rules of University Conduct and Invited Speakers on Campus

January 16, 2018

This post shares highlights from many conversations I have had this year with students and faculty about the Rules of University Conduct and their application to campus events with invited speakers. I have prioritized questions about student involvement in protests, though the Rules apply to other contexts as well. If you have other questions, please send them to me at [email protected].

Here are the questions that have come up most often: 

  • Do the Rules prohibit students from protesting against invited speakers whose views they oppose?

    No.  The Rules allow nearly all forms of protest. 
  • Does the Rules Administrator punish or sanction students for Rules violations? 

    No.  The Rules Administrator does not punish or impose sanctions on anyone. The University Judicial Board, which includes students, faculty and staff, is responsible for imposing sanctions if necessary.
  • Is there a conflict between your responsibility to advocate for students’ interests as EVP for University Life and your responsibility as Rules Administrator? 

    I don’t think so but I know that some students have expressed this concern so I want to address it here.  My top priority in University Life is to support students across all of Columbia’s schools – especially in their experience of community and belonging.  And one of my great interests is in working with students, faculty and staff to create opportunities for conversations across difference – differences related to identity, life experience, and views on important issues. 

    For me, this focus on supporting conversations across difference helps explain why I would also be involved with administering Columbia’s protest rules.  As everyone knows, conversations about differences can sometimes involve very sharp disagreement among groups of students, with the University, or with others outside Columbia.  Supporting this involves educating the community about protest rights and ensuring that these rights are meaningful – which will sometimes include the very rare situations when a student’s expression of disagreement interferes with the others’ ability to speak or listen, or with other important aspects of Columbia’s teaching, research and service missions.   
  • What counts as an interruption or a disruption of an invited speaker under the Rules?

    An interruption or disruption includes making noise when it is the speaker’s turn to talk, blocking the view of the speaker or audience members, and other activities that interrupt or disrupt the speaker’s communication with the audience. 
  • Why have you interpreted “interrupt” and “disrupt” in these ways? Should the University Senate’s Rules Committee interpret these terms?   

    Though it may go without saying, we don’t ordinarily expect rules drafters to write specifically about every possible situation, or even to imagine all of the situations in which the rules might need to be applied.  Instead, the nature of rules is to provide guidelines for conduct and to identify someone to apply them reasonably to specific situations. Here, the Senate’s Rules Committee drafted the rules and gave the responsibility for application to the Rules Administrator. 
  • How do you decide on and publicize your interpretations of the Rules?

    I look at the Affirmative Statement, which sets out the Rules’ basic values and priorities.  From the very beginning, I have shared these interpretations publicly so that if students or others disagree, they can let me know and also seek a revised interpretation or amendment, if appropriate, from the Senate.  Here’s a Spectator op-ed I wrote in March 2016, shortly after my first experience administering the Rules, and here are several posts I have shared since then.
  • How do you decide who to call in for an investigation meeting about a possible Rules violation at an event?

    Information about who may have violated a Rule typically comes from Delegates who are responsible for assisting with enforcing the Rules and approaching anyone causing a disruption.  Delegates introduce themselves and ask the person who is disrupting to step aside to talk.  They explain that there may be a Rules violation and ask the person to provide their CUID.  (They don’t keep the ID.) If someone does not provide their CUID to a delegate, the delegate may assist in identifying the person through videos or photos from the event. 

    Based on this information, I send an email to the student asking them to come in for a meeting. My email gives information about the potential violation, offers a couple of meeting times, and shares general information about the Rules, including that the student can bring up to two advisers to the meeting, if they would like.  The reason for sharing all of this information is that I want to be sure a student knows why they have been contacted.  
  • What happens in the investigation meeting?

    I let students know that I see these meetings as educational and as a chance to talk about where the Rules come from and why we have them as well as to talk about what happened at the event. Students can ask whatever questions they have about the Rules process.  I also explain what I have been told about their possible violation at the event and ask them to share with me any additions or corrections to the information I have.  For me, this is a very important part of the process so I can be sure I have accurate information.  I understand that this can be a stressful experience for some and try to do my best to put students at ease so we can have a thoughtful conversation. 
  • Why have you told students in the past about possible sanctions when you don’t have authority to impose sanctions on students? 

    To me, this is a matter of basic fairness.  If a student might be found responsible for a Rules violation by the University Judicial Board, they could face sanctions.  Since I’m the person who first contacts a student about a Rules violation, I have shared information about sanctions where I thought their case might go to the University Judicial Board.  I usually try to resolve initial complaints through informal resolution but there are some instances where a Rules violation has been repeated or is so extensive that it may be more appropriate to send that to the Board for consideration. If I was at risk of a potentially serious penalty, I would want to know – and I think it’s important for students who may be at risk to have this information too.

Important background on how the Rules apply to protests

What kinds of protest are allowed?

Outside of an event, protesters can oppose a speaker in any way they choose so long as noisemaking outside the event doesn’t interfere with audience members’ ability to hear the speaker.  The University’s other rules, including against harassment, violence and property damage, also apply. 

Inside an event, attendees can oppose a speaker in their comments and questions during the Q&A period; through messages on clothing or on small signs (depending on the event organizers’ rules); through writing, including on social media, during and after an event; through refusing to applaud a speaker’s remarks; and other similar forms of expression.

What kinds of protest of invited speakers do the Rules prohibit?

The Rules include 17 separate violations divided into two categories:  simple and serious.  Two that are especially relevant for protests of invited speakers are:   (13) (simple) briefly interrupts a University function; and (14) (serious) disrupts a University function or renders its continuation impossible.

Basic Background on the Rules

What are the Rules of University Conduct?

The Rules set out Columbia’s commitments to free expression and to our community members’ rights to engage in protest and counter-protest, in the Affirmative Statement.  They also identify a list of behaviors that are prohibited – mostly focused on disrupting speakers and the functioning of the University.  They also detail the process for investigating and resolving complaints of Rules violations.

Did you write the Rules?

No.  The University Senate’s Rules Committee, which includes students, faculty and staff, drafted the Rules, then consulted widely with students and others about them.  The University Senate then passed the proposed Rules and the University Trustees voted to adopt them.

How did you become the Rules Administrator?

The Rules Committee created the role of Rules Administrator and designated the Office of University Life as the right place to locate this responsibility. 

What does the Rules Administrator do?

The Rules Administrator is responsible for investigating complaints about Rules violations and for resolving complaints informally or filing formal charges with the University Judicial Board. 

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As I wrote at the outset, I’ll be glad to continue the conversation. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Professor Suzanne B. Goldberg
Executive Vice President for University Life