NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—In the weeks leading up to thousands of high school students across the country walking out in support of gun control and school safety, many colleges have felt the need to publicly take a side in the debate.
The Hub City was the site of five different protests at K-12 schools on March 14 with overwhelming support from the school district. However, that was not the case in every school district, as some threatened to suspend those who walked out.
On February 26, Rutgers University joined the hundreds of other American colleges that have assured prospective students that their admissions standing will not be affected if they are punished by their high schools for engaging in peaceful protests.
Some, however, are questioning Rutgers true dedication to ensuring the right to protest.
Mack Miller, a senior at Rutgers majoring in political science and journalism, posted a screenshot of Rutgers’ tweeted commitment to high school protesters with the caption: “Me and  other students are currently facing legal charges that Rutgers gave us because we participated in a peaceful protest but go ahead and jump on that PR campaign.”
Miller, along with 11 other members of the United Students Against Sweatshops alliance at Rutgers, are facing university reprimands as well as criminal charges of disruption and obstruction of law for protesting a Board of Trustees meeting in December.
They were protesting in support of a $15 per hour minimum wage for all Rutgers workers.
“The post itself says Rutgers is not going to penalize the high school students for participating in peaceful protests, but here I am with a bunch of student organizers facing legal charges and student conduct charges because of Rutgers University,” Miller said. “I can’t help but feel that’s exactly what hypocritical is.”
Miller believes that Rutgers had sway in the charges he and the other protesters faced. He notes that, by his estimation, there were at least 50 other protesters present at the Board of Trustees meeting for which he was penalized, but only a dozen protesters were charged.
In addition to the legal charges, Miller and his colleagues went through a student conduct review process. Miller ended up pleading no contest. Rutgers requires he complete a restorative justice program and remain in good standing with the university through May.
Miller says he is glad that high school protesters will be able to attend Rutgers, but he thinks Rutgers has a public relations approach to supporting student activists.
“It’s 100% a P.R. thing,” Miller said. “I don’t think they genuinely care about any of this. I think they know it looks very good to support this moment when there’s a huge political upheaval when it comes to the way our country is looking at guns.”
Peter Henderson, a freshman who also received a summons for the Fight for $15 protest, agreed with Miller, saying that Rutgers was “jumping on the P.R. [public relations] bandwagon” and announced what many other schools were announcing when the gun protests were in the media cycle.
“Rutgers approves protesting when it’s along very strict guidelines, like everyone approves and the police know but, in reality, protesting is meant to be disruptive,” Henderson said. “It’s meant to be against the rules and against the laws.”
Mariah Wood, another student who was also charged for the same protest, posted a similar message regarding Rutgers’ treatment of activists.
“Rutgers University loves to co-opt the hard work of activists, and organizers while criminalizing those pushing for #15oncampus,” Wood’s post read. “The day after christmas myself and 11 other student leaders were slapped with charges for participating in a peaceful protest, and we aren’t going to back down.”
“We’re not just asking for them to be able to support the students and we’re not just asking for something that they can do that potentially will have zero cost,” Miller said of the Fight for 15 protest. “We’re asking for something that will directly affect the pockets of the administration of Rutgers.”
New Brunswick Today has reached out to Rutgers for comment, but has not yet heard back.
Despite Miller’s experience, Rutgers has been supportive of other student protests in the past. At a demonstration in January 2017 called the “No Ban, No Wall” protest, Rutgers President Robert Barchi spoke to a crowd of over 1,000 demonstrators on campus. He assured students that Rutgers will protect its Muslim and immigrant student body.
“I felt that the administration really felt welcoming to our protest in January,” said Mohamed Asker, a Rutgers student who organized the event. “From the very beginning, they were willing to support us in every way possible.”
Asker said that a few months prior to the No Ban, No Wall protest, the administration was less cooperative with another large on-campus demonstration organized in November 2016 by undocuRutgers, a student group that advocates for undocumented immigrants.
According to Asker, that protest “went really well.” He said that its success led to the administration cooperating for the No Ban, No Wall demonstration.
“The administration kind of understood the stance that the students were taking and they followed up and really supported the students after the success of the first protest,” Asker said. “They realized the downside of not being a part of the first protest.”
In the eyes of many students, this show of support in January 2017 from the university was short lived. In April 2017, Rutgers changed its policy regarding protests, organizing and free speech.
The new policy outlined new guidelines for what constitutes disruption to campus, including obstruction of traffic, entrances or exits to the buildings or driveways, interfering with educational activities, harassing passersby, interfering with a scheduled speaker from being heard, damaging property or “engaging in any other activities that disrupt university business or infringe upon the rights of others.”
“They made the policy so vague that it’s very easy to punish people for almost anything,” Henderson said.
The Fight for $15 protesters received their court summonses eight months after this policy change had gone into effect.
Asker believes that Rutgers’ support of certain protests is “strategic” on their part. He feels Rutgers supported the “No Ban, No Wall” protest because many of Rutgers students are international students from the countries that were impacted by President Donald Trump’s travel ban, which sparked the demonstration.
“International students pay a lot more tuition than, let’s say, I do as an in-state student,” Asker said. “But for the case of Fight for $15, that’s not very strategic for the university to be in support of.”
“They want whatever’s best for them and the university,” Asker said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it leads to this issue that the university doesn’t want the power to be in the hands of the students.”