Responding to Speaker Disruptions on Campus

Monday, October 16, 2017

How does Columbia respond to disruptions of speakers who have been invited to our campus?  Because I have recently heard a wide variety of responses to this question from students on campus, I want to help clarify what our rules are, and are not. (For last week's post on contentious speakers on campus, please see here.)

In keeping with Columbia’s mission to foster the exchange of ideas, Columbia has long allowed speakers to come to our campus even when their messages are reviled by many and contradict our institutional values, including our commitments to careful thought, factual analysis, and the fundamental worth of all in our community and in the world at large.  Likewise, Columbia has long protected protest of those speakers and their ideas, and we have spoken out - both directly and through our teaching, research and other work - against messages that we reject as an institution.

Columbia’s Rules of University Conduct

Our Rules of University Conduct clearly permit both these speakers and protests of them.  The Rules' opening statement explains that the mission of universities generally and our University in particular is to “provide a place for ideas to be tested, for values to be questioned, and for minds to be changed with as few constraints as possible.”

The Rules add:

     To be true to these principles, the University cannot and will not rule any subject or form of expression out of order on the ground that it is objectionable, offensive, immoral, or untrue. Viewpoints will inevitably conflict, and members of the University community will disagree with and may even take offense at both the opinions expressed by others and the manner in which they are expressed. But the role of the University is not to shield individuals from positions that they find unwelcome. Rather, the University is a place for received wisdom and firmly held views to be tested, and tested again, so that members of the University community can listen, challenge each other, and be challenged in return.

How do the Rules apply to protests when an invited speaker is speaking? What is permitted during an event, and what is not?

Given that our Rules specifically allow for vigorous protest, I want to focus on what’s important to know about the limits to protests within an event venue. 

The most important point is also the most basic:  to fulfill our commitment to allowing speakers to speak, we need to allow speakers to speak, uninterrupted, during events.  President Bollinger has said, “[A]nyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree – particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance – is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow.”  

In practice, this means that students and others who oppose a speaker can express their views in many ways – by asking the toughest, most challenging questions during a Q&A; by wearing clothing expressing their message; by expressing their opposition in writing before, during or after an event; and by participating in protests outside the venue. 

What’s off limits inside of an event? Talking or making noise when it is the speaker's turn to talk, interfering with the speaker’s or audience members’ view, or being in the front of the room while the event is taking place unless the event organizers have given permission to do so. (The University’s other rules on harassment, safety, and respect for property also apply.)

What happens during an event if someone disrupts a speaker?

Delegates under the Rules of University Conduct have responsibility for approaching anyone causing a disruption; their role is to assist with enforcing the Rules.

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 that the person should stop the disruption immediately or risk interim sanctions, up to and including interim suspension, while a Rules investigation and process is pending. Delegates also ask the person to provide their CUID. 

  • Do Delegates keep anyone’s CUID?  No.  Delegates do not keep the ID card.  They take a photo or write down the information on the card so that the information is available if needed for any later Rules investigation.
  • What if a person refuses to provide their CUID?  Refusing to provide a CUID in response to a delegate’s request violates the Rules.  Public Safety personnel will step in and, in conjunction with the delegate, seek to escort the person out of the room, as they would do with anyone who is disrupting and not affiliated with the University.  Neither the delegates nor Public Safety will use physical force to do so.

What happens after the event?

The Rules set out a specific process that must be followed when a student or other Columbia community member appears to have violated one or more rules.  In essence, this process requires that the Rules Administrator investigate the incident and inform those whose conduct is being investigated, and then dismiss a complaint, informally resolve a complaint, or file charges with the University Judicial Board.  The Rules Administrator does not impose sanctions on students or others for Rules violations.  Section 445 provides that the Rules Administrator shall be appointed from the Office of University Life. 

The University Judicial Board includes students, faculty and administrators.  It has authority to determine whether any Rules violations occurred and to impose sanctions if appropriate.  

The Rules set out a time frame for each step in the process, and indicate that the University will seek to resolve every report of misconduct within two months of an incident, not counting any appeal.  While this process is pending, the Provost may impose an interim suspension on a student accused of a Rules violation.

Will the University release information about Rules investigations and violations?

The Rules specifically restrict the University from sharing information about investigations and adjudications of misconduct, other than with those who need to know the information to carry out their responsibilities. 

Who created the Rules of University Conduct

The Rules were drafted by a committee of the University Senate, which includes students, faculty, administrators and others. After approval by the Senate, the Trustees of the University voted to adopt the Rules.

Suzanne B. Goldberg 
Executive Vice President for University Life 
Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law

For more information on the Rules of University Conduct, please check here.

 


The Affirmative Statement of the Rules of University Conduct provides: 

     The Rules of University Conduct, found in Chapter XLIV of the Statutes of Columbia University, are intended to ensure that all members of our community may engage in our cherished traditions of free expression and open debate. The University, as a forum for the pursuit and attainment of knowledge in every field of human endeavor, has a special role in fostering free inquiry. A principal reason why universities have endured and flourished over centuries is that they provide a place for ideas to be tested, for values to be questioned, and for minds to be changed with as few constraints as possible. Like society at large, but even more so, the University has a vital interest in fostering a climate in which nothing is immune from scrutiny. And Columbia, in particular, has a long tradition of valuing dissent and controversy and in welcoming the clash of opinions onto the campus.

     To be true to these principles, the University cannot and will not rule any subject or form of expression out of order on the ground that it is objectionable, offensive, immoral, or untrue. Viewpoints will inevitably conflict, and members of the University community will disagree with and may even take offense at both the opinions expressed by others and the manner in which they are expressed. But the role of the University is not to shield individuals from positions that they find unwelcome. Rather, the University is a place for received wisdom and firmly held views to be tested, and tested again, so that members of the University community can listen, challenge each other, and be challenged in return. 

     The University recognizes only two kinds of limitations on the right of freedom of expression, and both are to be narrowly construed. First, the University reasonably regulates the time, place, and manner of certain forms of public expression. In keeping with the University’s dedication to the principle of uninhibited discourse, these regulations do not turn on the content of any message that might be expressed. Rather, they are necessary not because they would prevent any opinion from being stated or heard, but, to the contrary, because they protect the rights of free speech, free press, and academic freedom. Just as all members of the University community have the right to speak, to study, research, to teach, and to express their own views, so must they allow others in the community to do the same. The right to demonstrate, for example, cannot come at the expense of the right of others to counter-demonstrate, to teach, or to engage in academic pursuits requiring uninterrupted attention. As is true of the larger community in which the University sits, the University must protect the rights of all to engage in their callings and express their own views.

     Second, the University may restrict expression that constitutes a genuine threat of harassment, that unjustifiably invades an individual’s privacy, or that falsely defames a specific individual. These forms of expression stand apart because they do little if anything to advance the University’s truth-seeking function and they impair the ability of individuals at the University to participate in that function. The University has an obligation to assure members of its community that they can continue in their academic pursuits without fear for their personal security or other serious intrusions on their ability to teach and to study.

     Because of the University’s function as an incubator of ideas and viewpoints, the principle of free expression must be jealously guarded. As President Bollinger has noted, “Our great institutions of higher education bear a special social responsibility for educating people to possess a nimble cast of mind, able to grasp multiple perspectives and the full complexity of a subject. And for centuries, great societies of all types have understood that this kind of intellectual capacity is essential to progress. But never have critical thinking and tolerance been more important for individual well-being and for our collective prosperity.” Every member of our community therefore retains the right to demonstrate, to rally, to picket, to circulate petitions and distribute ideas, to partake in debates, to invite outsiders to participate, and to retain the freedom to express opinions on any subject whatsoever, even when such expression invites controversy and sharp scrutiny. Although the University values the civil and courteous exchange of viewpoints, it does not limit discussion because the ideas expressed might be thought offensive, immoral, disrespectful, or even dangerous. We expect that members of our community will engage in public discussions that may confront convention, and free expression would mean little if it did not include the right to express what others may reject or loathe. 

 

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