Task force right to take its time

By Gus Bode

The task force charged with proposing revisions to the University’s demonstration policy has a difficult and important job.

Whatever decision the task force makes, it will reverberate throughout the campus for years to come, affecting everyone associated with the University, whether they choose to exercise their right to protest or not.

When the administration announced the development of the task force, we were encouraged by the initiative taken by Larry Dietz, vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, to get the ball rolling, but were somewhat concerned when he said the task force was expected to complete its job this summer after “only a few meetings.”

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The revision of the demonstration policy is much too important to rush through without soliciting and considering input from as many people as possible.

Recent news that members of the task force are moving slowly and do not think they will complete the job prior to the end of the summer semester therefore came as a welcome development.

It is true, as Dietz has said, that the major constituency groups on campus are represented on the task force.

But these representatives’ constituents are, for the most part, far from Carbondale and completely unaware of any changes the task force may propose.

How are students and faculty members who are away from campus for the summer supposed to offer comments and suggestions on a proposal of which they have no knowledge?

It is somewhat ironic that a task force developed to revise a policy dealing with free speech would initially choose to do so when the fewest number of people are around to express their opinions of it, but it now appears the task force will not make its final decision until students return for the fall semester.

While we are relieved that the task force is going to be more cautious in its deliberations, some possible revisions to the policy raise troubling concerns.

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One of the most alarming changes was actually proposed before the Marc Torney imbroglio brought the issue to the forefront of campus conversation.

In October 2003, five months before Torney was cited for violating the demonstration policy, a proposed revision to the policy was drafted. In that proposal, the administration sought to require people wishing to protest to get “approval” from the administration, rather than giving the previously required 24-hour “notice.”

Torney, who graduated in May, was threatened with expulsion for not notifying the administration that he planned to protest the war in Iraq outside the Student Center. Charges against Torney were eventually dismissed, but the uproar surrounding the issue prompted Chancellor Walter Wendler to direct Dietz to develop proposals to change the policy.

Dietz responded by forming the task force.

It would seem that since the task force was formed in response to widespread outrage over Torney’s predicament, its goal would be to develop a policy that is less restrictive of speech.

But judging from comments made by Tequia Hicks, Undergraduate Student Government president and a member of the task force, the administration is still considering a policy that requires protestors to get permission before voicing their opinions.

This is a step backward for free speech on campus and should be strongly opposed by anyone who cares about the freedom of expression.

Requiring notification of demonstrations is a legitimate way to prevent disruptive protests from interfering with the rights of others on campus.

But requiring approval is another matter entirely.

The right to dissent is not dependent upon the whims or personal beliefs of Wendler, Dietz or anyone else, but rather on the First Amendment of our Constitution.

It seems as if the administration is taking advantage of widespread confusion over the policy to make it even more restrictive, which, if true, is truly deplorable.

Another proposed change to the policy involves the Free Forum Area, currently located near Anthony Hall, which is the only area on campus where prior notice of a demonstration need not be given.

With construction occurring on the pedestrian overpass near the Free Forum Area, foot traffic has been virtually eliminated, rendering the area useless for expressing opinions to others and necessitating a new area where unscheduled protests are permitted.

Even when the overpass is re-opened, the small area does not offer protestors access to a good cross section of campus, as most students who pass the area are on-campus residents walking to and from their dorms.

A new Free Forum Area is needed in a central location that is visible to a large number of students and other members of the campus community, not just the administration. The lawn just north of Morris Library comes to mind, but there are many other areas that would be much better choices than the current location.

The University community owes the people who volunteered their time to serve on the task force a debt of gratitude.

But if the task force does not take its time to get input from as many people as it can, or decides to allow the administration to limit the freedom of speech even further, that gratitude could quickly change to disappointment, anger and unauthorized protests.

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