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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On April 6, the Rutgers University Board of Governors quietly passed a new policy that makes any student activity that disrupts "University activity, class lecture, adminstrative function, or official University business" an offense under the school's "Student Code of Conduct."
The new policy is a revision to a so-called "disruption policy" that has existed since 1974, according to President Bob Barchi.
While Barchi and the powerful board say the policy opens up the possibility for a safer campus, many students and professors say that it presents the potential for limiting important student activism.
It's not clear exactly what prompted the policy change, but student activists argued that protests they particpated in over the past school year could be grounds for punishment under the new version, and that the university already demonstrated contempt for activism in some cases.
Christopher DiStasio, a member of Rutgers' United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) said, "[Barchi] doesn't want students to have the power to have direct action campaigns to change what he wants to stay the same."
"When [USAS] delivered a letter to him closer to the beginning of our Fight for 15 campaign he said that he 'had a business to run,'" says DiStasio.
Two months later, at the board's next public meeting, students and faculty signed up to speak against the policy, sparking a series of defenses from Barchi.
"We felt that [the old policy] was too broadly defined," said Barchi, who added it also did not provide "a clear chain of command."
Under the new version, the University President or the Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs, now have the ability to "declare a particular activity to be disruptive."
The original policy states that "disrupting scheduled events" is an offense, while the revised version also makes "leading or inciting others to disrupt" scheduled events an offense, and also specifies that "infringing on the rights of others" is an offense.
The Board of Governors seems comfortable limiting student action while not holding its own employees to the same level of accountability, nor does it seem to be concerned with its own employees infringing on the rights of students.
In July 2016, a Rutgers student activist was manhandled by Rosario Sciortino, a Rutgers University staff electrician at a Board of Governors hearing concerning tuition increase.
The board decided to enter a "closed-session," at which time a student activist grabbed a binder from the board's table.
The electrician proceeded to chase the student before grabbing him and wrapping an arm around the student's neck.
Police investigated the incident but did not file any criminal charges in the case.
The electrician is still employed by Rutgers University, and was present while the Board got its first taste of blowback from the community about the new policy.
Employees are not bound by the Student Code of Conduct, but it's almost certain that, if a student treated a university employee in the same manner, they would be in serious trouble under the new policy, and several others.
The new policy declares that any "individuals or groups" who engage in any of the following behaviors that "intentionally or recklessly interfere with the operation of the University or the rights of others" are now prohibited:
- obstruct vehicular, bicycle, pedestrian, or other traffic;
- obstruct entrances or exits to buildings or driveways;
- interfere with educational activities inside or outside any building;
- harass passersby;
- interfere with or preclude a scheduled speaker from being heard;
- interfere with scheduled University ceremonies or events;
- damage property, including lawns, shrubs, or trees; or
- engage in any other activities that disrupt university business or infringe upon the rights of others.
Barchi cited several demonstrations that occurred in the weeks following the new policy's adoption without incident, including a vigil for Syrian victims, the annual Take Back The Night march, and a "May Day rally" in support of undocumented student Carimer Andujar.
Just seconds after Barchi cited those examples, Andujar took to the microphone to take issue with the first item on the list of prohibited behavior: obstructing traffic.
"If you recall, during the #NoBanNoWall march, which I helped organize, it was a big obstruction of all types of traffic because it was on the sidewalk, but it was also on the street, just because of the massive turnout that we had," said Andujar.
The rally drew more than 1,000 people to College Avenue's Brower Commons before the group marched around New Brunswick, forcing streets to be closed to vehicular traffic by police officers.
Andujar said she feared the policy would not be uniformly applied to all demonstrations and actions.
Calling for the board to overturn the policy, the head of the faculty union, David Hughes, said that walkways and roadways are important public spaces that are "more than just transit corridors."
"This is the wrong time to do this. You, the board, are not supposed to politicize Rutgers," said Hughes. "So after five months of steady protests against the Trump agenda, by our students and faculty, you decide to strengthen this policy. That is sending the wrong message statewide and nationwide."
Others agreed that it was a poor move on the part of the board considering the role of universities as public spaces for activism and "the free exchange of ideas."
"The fact is is that the policy explicitly, clearly bars a certain kind of protest, and it bars it at a political moment when there are a lot of protests," said Professor Rob Scott.
The public's comments sparked a back-and-forth that eventually led to Sandy Stewart, the new Chairman of the Board of Governors, saying that the board would "take [the comments] into consideration."