Northwestern student activists, administrators debate demonstration policy


Illustration by Angeli Mittal

Student activists are calling for Northwestern administrators to rethink their outlook on protests.

Joanne Haner, Assistant Photo Editor

After an on-field student protest at the Nov. 6 Iowa-Northwestern football game, administrators sent a campuswide email reminding students of the University’s demonstration policy and possible ramifications of their actions. 

The policy outlines parameters for students, faculty and staff to follow “when engaging in free speech and peaceful demonstration.” Found in the student handbook, the policy was rewritten in 2017. The last time the University’s demonstration policy was rewritten was before 1980. 

While the email stated NU “encourages freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry, freedom of dissent and freedom to demonstrate in a peaceful fashion,” some student activists said this response disregarded the inherently disruptive nature of protest. 

A SESP sophomore and student activist, who chose to remain anonymous out of concern for their safety, described the demonstration policy as “hypocritical.” 

“(Julie Payne-Kirchmeier) sent us an email after the Iowa-Northwestern football game saying that Northwestern is supporting freedom of dissent, supporting people to demonstrate peacefully and all these tenants that they claim to uphold,” the student said. “The University does not have a history of that.”

NU’s recent responses to student protest 

The email following the events of Nov. 6 condemned the actions of student protestors, stating that the demonstration presented “unique challenges for the safety and well-being of all involved.” 

The email reminded students that their actions violated the demonstration policy, which states that “no community member may prevent or obstruct” University events. The statement noted possible ramifications for the students involved, including “suspension, expulsion or legal consequences as appropriate.”

These threats aren’t new. Last fall, University President Morton Schapiro then strongly condemned the actions of NU Community Not Cops protests, citing a variety of violations of “law and university standards.”

After protests against former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in fall 2019, five NU students received citations for “disorderly conduct and interfering with the duties of a police officer.” Students underwent a University accountability process, and charges from the city were later dismissed in Evanston court. 

Now, some student activists are calling for institutional changes to how the University responds to demonstrations. 

“We shouldn’t have to fear our standing at the University”

Weinberg senior Karina Karbo-Wright said they believe risk is an integral part of protest.

Karbo-Wright, Associated Student Government’s executive officer of justice and inclusion, said the current demonstration policy feels like a threat to student activists like herself. 

“Most of these administrators are white,” they said. “And I think that affects (the process) because they’re coming from a place of empathy (rather than experience).”

The policy asks for students to inform the University when a protest is going to take place, but Karbo-Wright said this defeats the purpose. Since protests follow the national political climate, she said she feels the policy should be set in a way that protects students. 

“We shouldn’t have to fear our standing at the University just because we’re trying to make the University better,” Karbo-Wright said. “The reason people protest is because administrators don’t listen. And that’s not our fault. That’s their fault. Trying to promote honesty, engagement and accountability is met with punishment, and it shouldn’t be.”

The SESP sophomore said the claim that the demonstration policy protects protestors “doesn’t make sense.” She said if NU truly cared about protestors’ safety and encouraged dissent, then there would be no issue meeting the demands proposed by these organizations. 

The sophomore highlighted the difference in the administration’s responses to protests such as the one at the football game, calling their language “punitive.” 

“They’re going to suspend or expel and launch investigations into organizers who are mostly Black and brown who are organizing with organizations that are supporting Black and brown life and well-being,” she said. 

Administrative action in response to student concerns

Lucas Christain, assistant dean of students and director of the Office of Community Standards, was present for the 2017 revision of the demonstration policy. He said the policy is intended to provide students, faculty and staff with resources to help them safely demonstrate on campus or at University-sponsored events. 

“It’s actually not a preventative policy, it’s a how-to policy,” Christain said. “The previous policy was much more (focused on) what not to do rather than what to do.” 

Associate Provost for Strategy and Policy Roma Khanna said the previous policy focused on disruption rather than demonstration, and the new policy is meant to emphasize support.

In May 2020, the demonstration policy was due for its three-year review cycle, and the University met with ASG and other student groups to adapt. The revisions included adding a requirement for officers to give a warning before directly engaging with protestors, additional information about Event Support Teams and an FAQ section at the end.“Part of the goal of adding the FAQ … was to hopefully try to encourage more engagement (with student protestors) to make certain that if there were going to be barriers or concerns that they could try to work with the University to find out what those might be, and try to prevent those,” Christain said.

ASG works to make changes

Weinberg senior Margot Bartol, ASG’s accountability chair, said ASG is reaching out to student activist groups, including NUCNC, Fossil Free Northwestern and Students for Justice in Palestine, among others, to hear feedback from activists on what changes they would like to see in the demonstration policy. 

Bartol said she is discussing these changes in conversations with administrators like Christain and Khanna to voice student concerns regarding the policy.

Bartol added she believes a large issue with the policy is the definition of protest. She said it’s essential that administrators and students agree on what qualifies as protest.  

“Disruption is a part of protest,” Bartol said. “As it’s defined in the student demonstration policy, basically the whole idea is you can protest if you don’t disrupt and that’s something we hope to look at.”

Email: [email protected]du

Twitter: @joanne_n_h

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