George Washington University student protesters were denied access to what was initially an open meeting of the Board of Trustees on Feb. 10. University police blocked the Fossil Free GW advocates from entering the Marvin Center at first, then let the students in the building on the condition that they leave their signs at the door.
“This is private property, sir,” a policeman said to a student on the way in. “You can’t protest on private property… No protest signs in the building.”
Even at George Washington University, the most politically active campus in the United States, the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly do not apply. Instead, the university adheres to its own rules for student conduct and generally permits free speech, although, according to the Demonstrations Policy from the Office of Safety and Security, “…the university maintains the right to define the time, place and manner in which protests, rallies, or equivalent activities (hereinafter “demonstrations”) occur on its campuses and at its facilities.” The Demonstrations Policy makes no specific mention of signs, banners or posters, but regulating the manner of student expression would encompass the regulation of these items. The students from Fossil Free GW could have met with an advisor from the Center for Student Engagement in order to ensure the protest could be executed properly, and to reserve the space.
Fossil Free GW is a student group on campus dedicated to encouraging the Board of Trustees members to divest the university’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry. According to their website, “Fossil Free GW’s goal is… to foster a partnership that will allow GW to live up to its rhetoric by becoming a true leader in sustainability.” The organization on campus is part of a global movement to get institutions, businesses, and other organizations to divest their money from the fossil fuel industry.
After explaining to the University Police Department officers that all of the protesters were students, the group was permitted inside the building where they stood outside of the closed doors of the Grand Ballroom, chanted and read their ultimatum.
Initially, their plan was to attend the Board of Trustees meeting, which was open to the general public. Their plan, as Eden Vitoff, one of the Fossil Free GW speakers said, was to “stop chanting when we get to the stairs and enter the Board of Trustees meeting and read our ultimatum.” The meeting was quickly changed to a closed meeting minutes before the protesters reached the doors of the Marvin Center. When they received notice that the meeting had been closed, Logan Malik, a Fossil Free GW board member, explained that the new plan was to stand in the lobby in front of where the meeting was being held and to be as loud as possible.
Many of the students at the protest were upset when they were not allowed to bring their signs into the Marvin Center. “If the board thinks they can wait us out, they have another thing coming,” Vitoff said. “We are here to stay.”
Eric Teller, a board member of Fossil Free GW, said, “We have a right to make sure our university does not undermine the principles contained in its charter and its sustainability goals.”
Ira “Chip” Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University Law School, said that George Washington University does not have to give students any right to free speech or assembly because it is a private university. State universities do have to allow freedom of expression, but they can designate “free speech zones” where protests are allowed and will not be disruptive. Lupu said, “The University does say that we respect freedom of expression, but that does not mean it’s bound to the First Amendment.”
While these freedoms do exist on campus, they are largely monitored by the Center for Student Engagement and the University Police Department. “Students are not supposed to disrupt university functions,” said Kaitlyn Schmitt of the Center for Student Engagement. The Board of Trustees meeting would be considered a university function.
“If I were the lawyer to the University, I’d say…if you have a policy about signs indoors, you have to be consistent,” Lupu said. He also mentioned that any policy about signs should specify exactly which kinds of signs are and are not permitted. He said that it would be impractical to say that a t-shirt or armband is a disruption, but that a very large sign could feasibly create a disruption to business as usual. Although there is no formal rule about signs in the Demonstrations Policy, some of the protesters wore surgical masks with writing on them, and they were not asked to remove them at the door.
Schmitt said, “When making determinations, we need to be content-neutral.” She made the distinction that it doesn’t matter to the University what you say, so much as how you say it. When a protest is properly planned, the University Police Department is notified and security for the event is arranged ahead of time.
If students are planning to arrange a protest, they should contact the Center for Student Engagement, where advisers help students ensure that protests and demonstrations are executed safely and properly.