The University administration made changes to the student handbook this semester to mandate the administration’s prior approval of protest demonstrations by student groups. The changes to Section 7.1 of the Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook makes campus demonstrations more difficult, according to a student activist group that spoke with the Justice.  The language in 7.1 is identical to a section in the Princeton University handbook, but Brandeis applies it differently. 

The changes were announced by University Provost Lisa Lynch on Aug. 29 in an email to the Brandeis community detailing the administration’s response to issues raised by #StillConcernedStudents last spring. 

The changes read, “In asking groups and individuals to seek prior approval for schedule and location, the University’s goal is not to restrict free speech or peaceable assembly. Rather, it is to give the University the opportunity to provide space that accommodates the reasonable needs of both the University community and those engaged in acts of speech or protest.” The language change is followed by a note to see Section 6.2 for the University’s sign-posting policies, which were also changed this semester. 

This change came in response to allegations of unequal reactions by the administration to protests by Brandeis Climate Justice and #StillConcernedStudents. Both groups held protests that involved hanging banners during the 2018-2019 academic year, but the groups’ banners were dealt with differently by the administration. In an Aug. 29 email to the community, Lynch wrote that the administration had “Not followed our protocols on banners and that, therefore, students were not treated in an equitable manner.”  She wrote that the removal of banners hung by #StillConcernedStudents had been “mishandled.” 

In an email to the Justice on Friday, Assistant Dean of Student Rights and Community Standards Alexandra Rossett said that the punishment for not having a protest approved would be meted out on a “case-by-case” basis and did not specify the severity of those consequences. She noted that the Student Conduct Process in general “is meant to be educational and to help ensure our students understand what our behavioral expectations are.”

Rossett wrote that students should reach out to the Dean of Students’ Office by email to begin the approval process prior to the event taking place, and that a meeting would take place to “get an understanding of the event, provide guidance on expectations, answer student questions, and solidify schedule and location approval for the event.” Rossett said that the prior approval process was in place to “make sure there is safety first, support for our students, and to make sure appropriate awareness occurs for campus partners as to prevent unintended interruption of the protest.”

In an Aug. 29 joint interview with the Justice, University President Ron Liebowitz, Lynch and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Stewart Uretsky said that they had not consulted with the #StillConcernedStudents about the final changes in language featured in this year’s Rights and Responsibilities handbook. Unlike at Princeton University, there does not seem to have been an attempt by the administration to gather other students’ input on the new rules or to have student representatives look at the rules before putting them into this year’s handbook. 

The revisions stand in contrast to the University’s Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression, adopted in Sept. 2018, which says that introducing prior restraint would have a “chilling effect on speech and exchange of views on campus.” The policy requiring prior approval introduces the potential for administrative prior restraint by defining spaces where protest speech can or cannot take place. 

Speaking on behalf of IfNotNow Brandeis, an activist group on campus, Miranda Sullivan ’22 said that the new regulations adversely affect her group. Sullivan faced the student conduct process over the summer for violating a student handbook section on posting signs, a process she said was arbitrary and “extremely painful,” she wrote in an email to the Justice on Friday. 

“We can not be fully-effective activists if we must get approval before every action. If a group wants to protest the university it seems like they have to get university approval in order to do so- this is absurd!” she wrote.  

Sullivan said that the introduction of the new sections to Rights and Responsibilities on protest approval was indicative of a problem with the University as a whole: “If people are protesting at the university so much that this clause has to be added, maybe Brandeis should change its institutional practices, not its handbook,” she wrote. 

Sullivan also commented that the lack of specificity of the punishment a student could receive if they violate the new rules is concerning. 

“We could see this really hurting activist groups down the line. The ambiguity could potentially allow administrators to come down harder on certain activist groups than others, depending on how much they agree with their actions and demands,” she wrote. 

 Sullivan says her group will continue to protest as they had before. “We are going to keep advocating for what we see is right. We know that the organizing community here is strong and I hope people are not scared by the new restrictions,” she wrote. “I’m certainly not.”

Representatives from Brandeis Climate Justice and #StillConcernedStudents did not respond to requests for comment as of press time. 

While the new policy language is taken from Princeton University’s current handbook, Brandeis applies the policy more strictly by making it a requirement. The language in Section 7.1 that requires the “prior approval for schedule and location” is a verbatim repetition of language in Princeton University’s Rights, Rules and Responsibilities, section 1.2.3. The sourcing went unannounced in Lynch’s original email. A note in Section 7 of the Brandeis Rights and Responsibilities handbook reads, “Some language in this policy was originally crafted and published by Princeton University,” but does not specify which language. 

In an email to the Justice on Thursday, Princeton University Deputy Spokesman Michael Hotchkiss said that the “prior approval” was not mandatory for Princeton students wanting to protest. Princeton’s administration only “encourages” students to obtain approval “to ensure their planned location is available and help them avoid any inadvertent violations of other University policies,” Hotchkiss said. 

According to Hotchkiss, the language sourced from Princeton’s handbook that also appears in Brandeis’ handbook was approved at Princeton by a vote of the Council of the Princeton University Community. According to its website, the CPUC’s members include “faculty, students, staff and alumni representatives.” Those who are alleged to have violated the Princeton handbook policy on protest are also adjudicated by the CPUC’s judicial committee, Hotchkiss wrote. 

In contrast, Brandeis’ application of the same language requires, rather than just encourages, approval. This language was approved by a small group of Brandeis administrators, without any evidence of student input, and does not specify a particular punishment for violations. 

—Editor’s Note: Ari Albertson is a member of IfNotNow and did not write or edit the section on IfNotNow. 

—Editor’s Note: News Editor Gilda Geist and Acting Photos Editor Sarah Katz are members of IfNotNow and did not edit the section on IfNotNow.