At my undergraduate alma mater, USC, the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE) staged a knit-in on the steps of the Pertusati University Bookstore.
Lori White, associate vice president for Student Affairs, asked the students to relocate to Hahn plaza to comply with University policy. Hahn plaza, where Tommy Trojan is located, is an area where students are allowed to gather in large groups without requesting permission. USC’s restrictions on the freedom of students to peaceably assemble are part of a growing trend in American universities to restrict freedom of expression. USC identifies Hahn plaza as a “free speech zone” which obscures the fact that USC defines other places as “restricted speech zones.”
My present place of employment, Ohio University, approved restrictions on free speech at the end of summer 2006. Local student groups, most notably Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), are planning to protest the restriction of speech on public property (which Ohio University is).1
The right to speak freely in the United States is being eroded under the guise of accommodating it and, to be sure, decisions made by faceless administrators to streamline the operations of institutions of higher learning are part of this problem.2
However, the real problem is that no one seems to be interested in free speech anymore. Free speech should only be free when it doesn’t offend anyone, when no one is threatened by what is being said. The problem reveals itself the moment SCALE yields to Lori White’s demands.
The Daily Trojan puts a pretty face on SCALE’s surrender, noting “SCALE complied with White’s request, but not without question.” I think the word you want is caved. Serendipitously (depending on your perspective) named, SCALE member Carlo Cattaneo Adorno expressed confusion over White’s demand because “We're not noisy, we're not even singing; it's a silent protest.”
Do you hear that? That’s the sound of an activist whimpering when confronted by repressive apparatus.
bOINbOING even writes this up with a sympathetic slant toward SCALE and by doing so allows American student activism to continue its delusion that the responsibility for meaningful protest belongs to the repressive apparatus and not to the students themselves. bOINGbOING points a justified finger of blame at White and USC’s repressive apparatus, but fails to educate SCALE about how to be more politically effective.
As much as I applaud the spirit of the SCALE knit-in protesters, every single one of them deserves an “F” in American Political History. Only Congress is prohibited from abridging freedom of expression, which means private institutions can effectively and lawfully censor American citizens on American soil.3
The whole point of effective protest hinges on disobedience, something Henry David Thoreau makes clear in “Civil Disobedience” and which point Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and many others have understood but which the SCALE protesters have failed to grasp. If these students had understood the lessons embedded in the history of political activism, they would have refused to budge when Lori White asked them to decamp to Hahn Plaza, risking imprisonment and other sanctions.
This is how civil disobedience is supposed to work. Protest is protest. It is not enough to have a knitting session with an idea behind it. Something has to be at stake behind the protest, and the value of that stake is precisely the value of the protest. Risking sanction (i.e. administrative discipline) is one of the foundations of successful student activism.
Contributor William Creeley notes,