December 2nd, 2005: This morning, seven students face the threat of expulsion from Hampton University simply for attempting to raise awareness on campus, in a November 2nd demonstration, of a variety of issues – including the war in Iraq, the New Orleans recovery effort, the AIDS crisis, homophobia, the prison-industrial complex, and the humanitarian crisis in Sudan.
Below is a letter NCAC sent yesterday – with support from PEN, the Student Press Law Center, and the First Amendment Project – to University President William R. Harvey. We have also gathered links to news coverage and statements online regaring these events.
Dear President Harvey:
We are writing to express grave concern regarding the hearings scheduled to take place at Hampton University tomorrow, December 2nd, in which seven students face the threat of expulsion for their roles in a campus demonstration held last month.
We understand that these students were participating in an organized event called “The World Can’t Wait,” which encouraged students and professionals nationwide to stage symbolic “walk-outs,” leaving their classrooms or offices, to protest military actions in Iraq, as well as to call attention to domestic issues related to the environment, public health, and social justice. Regardless of the issues in question — or the students’ positions on them — the First Amendment protects the right of every American to engage in this manner of peaceful dissent.
As a private university, Hampton is not constitutionally bound to ensure that all students can exercise the right to think and express themselves freely. However, the actions of the administration controvert the very values that higher education is intended to promote. One of the students facing expulsion tomorrow, Aaron Ray, reportedly said, “We just wanted to talk to students and encourage them to think about what’s going on in our world and how they can make a contribution.” Shouldn’t Hampton seek to encourage and reward just this sort of engagement by its students, rather than threatening the most severe punishment at its disposal?
If student conduct indeed violated campus rules regarding organized demonstrations, we believe that a warning would be sufficient — and just — disciplinary action. As Hampton journalism professor Wil LaVeist was quoted as saying, “Students may not have followed the policies perfectly & but they could have been reminded of the rules before expulsion was brought up.” Yet students report that the administration’s response, at every level, has been severe. On the day of the protest, campus police are reported to have destroyed flyers and posters, intimidated and videotaped demonstrators, and later prevented journalists from interviewing students about what had transpired. The threat of expulsion looming over seven students tomorrow is even more harrowing.
Such selective enforcement of the rules by the University suggests an institutional bias against the campus groups in question and the ideas they sought to express. Students affiliated with anti-war and human rights groups have cited routine, unpunished violations of the same rules by fraternities and other student organizations. Furthermore, they claim that they have been repeatedly denied the official “recognition” that administration policy requires in order for a student group — ironically enough — to protest the administration’s policies without fear of reprisal.
Even more disturbing is the heavy-handedness of the administration’s actions in this case, and the potential chilling effect they — and tomorrow’s hearings — may have upon the climate for free speech at Hampton. Indeed, these actions set a troubling precedent for University campuses throughout the country. Educational institutions, public or private, should encourage freedom of thought and expression, as well as the kind of civic involvement evidenced by student actions on November 2nd. To punish these students is a violation of core American values, and of the very principles educational institutions are designed to instill in our nation’s youth.
We call for the halting of disciplinary action against the seven students in question.
We call for a thorough review of all University policies regarding the process by which student groups obtain official recognition from the administration.
And we call for the Hampton University administration to take action, by issuing a public apology and by drafting new policies to ensure that freedom of expression, regardless of ideology, is respected and protected on campus.
The National Coalition Against Censorship
PEN American Center
The First Amendment Project
The Student Press Law Center
Links to News Coverage and Statements from NCAC’s Participating Organizations