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Stories from across Connecticut that contextualize the frustration, confusion, and hurt related to free speech and expression on campus.

How CT students work with and around their admin to demonstrate

Students at Yale University participate in a "die-in" in support of Palestine on Nov. 9, 2023.
Eda Uzunlar
More than 100 students at Yale University participate in a "die-in" in support of Palestine on Nov. 9, 2023.

Young people have spent the past two months organizing walk-outs to die-ins and candlelight vigils to share their sorrow, grief, and hope. These demonstrations come as a reaction to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israeli cities outside Gaza and the following near-daily attacks from Israeli forces on Gaza and other parts of Palestine.

And they’re happening nearly every day on college campuses across Connecticut. Events have varied from the participation of a few students, to hundreds marching across campuses.

For many of the events, colleges and universities in Connecticut have kept from interfering and even aided student groups in their efforts.

According to Terrence Cheng, chancellor of the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities, who oversees a system of six public colleges and universities in the state, those protests and demonstrations are some of the most important events a school can uphold.

“Our job as higher education leaders and institutions is to make sure that there is a protection of academic freedom and of free speech,” Cheng said. “And that the free flow of ideas, which is the crux and core of our existence in higher education, is protected.”

But there are times when students aren’t sure of what they can or can’t do on campus – either from anxieties of academic repercussions, or from fear of personal safety.

Free speech on college campuses, basically

According to legal experts, free speech on campus shouldn’t vary much from what free speech looks like in the First Amendment.

“We should endeavor to treat campuses as like any other public space in America,” said Richard Wilson, the founding director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Connecticut.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that sentiment in the decision on the 1972 case Healy v. James, which took place on the campus of Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in New Britain.

The case first arose in 1969, when CCSU’s president had denied official recognition of Students for a Democratic Society, a left-leaning organization known at the time for violence on other campuses. He said the group’s philosophy was “antithetical to the school’s policies,” and that he was convinced the group would be disruptful of education at the college.

The case was decided, 8-1, in favor of the students. In the concurring opinion, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. said, "state colleges and universities are not enclaves immune from the sweep of the First Amendment,” and that neither students nor staff and faculty “shed their constitutional rights of freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."

Wilson, the chair of human rights and professor of law and anthropology at UConn, said, however, that private universities have more flexibility than public schools to determine what can and can’t happen on their campuses.

“Private universities have more leeway in terms of the type of speech restrictions they may pursue,” he said of the decision 50 years ago. But, “By and large, private universities have stayed somewhat similar to state universities in terms of their approach to speech.”

So, students’ rights to demonstrate on private campuses are slightly less clear-cut than public institutions. But many schools consider themselves bastions of free speech, and lay out their own codes of conduct to uphold free speech and expression on their campuses.

In practice, it should be accessible for students to organize, demonstrate, and share their voices. The landmark 1974 Woodward Report from Yale University that first established the school’s free speech principles dictates the following in its closing statement:

“If the university's overriding commitment to free expression is to be sustained, secondary social and ethical responsibilities must be left to the informal processes of suasion, example, and argument.”

But it isn’t always as easy as just making the sign – complications with school authorities can make students doubt what they can and can’t do.

Facing college administrations

Across the country, major players in the higher education arena have sanctioned students from protesting. This includes private schools like Columbia University in New York and Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Cases like these haven’t taken place in Connecticut, but activist students like Chi say there are heavy tensions between them and their respective administrations.

Chi, a student who is a pro-Palestinian organizer on campus, said she also thinks the administration is cautious to make any moves as outward-facing as those of Columbia or Brandeis. She’s using a pseudonym to protect her identity as an undergraduate student. We met after she had finished participating in a die-in on campus with more than 100 of her peers.

“I think the one thing that Yale cares the most about is their optics,” she said. But she doesn’t think they’re putting as much effort into actually working with students.

“The administration is not explicitly, or even implicitly on our side when it comes to the neutral equal enforcement of security measures that people are given during protests on campus.”

According to Chi, that includes student property. She explained that during a demonstration held in early December, a counter-demonstrator arrived, Israeli flag in hand.

“Do what you [gotta] do,” Chi said. “But as someone was giving a speech, one of them shoved passed a student marshal into the circle....”

Chi said the Yale Police Department, the New Haven Police Department, and university administrators were present, in accordance with school guidelines.

Chi also explained that their property – a 60 foot-long banner with the names of up to 7,000 Palestinians who had been killed in bombings in the past two months – had been taken down by a counter-demonstrator while the rally was underway nearby.

WSHU received a video of Pilar Montalvo, assistant vice president for university life, talking with a counter-demonstrator about the banner.

“Is there anything that prohibits me from taking down the poster?” asked the student.

“I don’t think that we encourage students to take down other students’ posters. We would prefer students to put up their own posters as opposed to taking [them] down,” Montalvo responded.

The student asked if they were explicitly required not to take it down, and cited Yale’s student code of conduct. Students aren’t allowed to take other students’ posters down if they were on designated billboards, but this banner was taped to a door. Montalvo then changed her earlier response.

“I think if you’d like to take it down, that would be fine.” she concluded.

Chi said she was frustrated because she and other students had already made the effort to communicate with the college about the banner. And they had received explicit permission to put it up on that door.

“It's exemplary of how the onus of safety and the logistics of the escalation are always placed on pro-Palestinian organizers. We always have to consider plan A through plan Z,” Chi said.

“Even when taking these extra measures ourselves, the administration disregards these things.”

John remains anonymous because he is that counter-demonstrator. He said he believed the banner violated school policies, and that the school failing to take the poster down showed a bias against pro-Israel efforts.

“The administration has torn down hostage posters that conformed to Yale's policy, which was for absolutely no reason,” he said. “And yet, different posters [have been] strung across bulletin boards across campus that were in violation of Yale's policy… [It’s] a double standard compared to what they had done with Jewish posters that were in line with Yale policy.”

When reached for comment, Pilar Montalvo provided the following statement:

“There were administrative errors in allowing the poster to go up and in its removal. Yale College Undergraduate Regulations state that, ‘Posters must be confined to the bulletin boards, kiosks, display cases, and other spaces that Yale College has specifically designated for postering. The students did ask officials if they could put it up and were given the incorrect information about where it could be posted. I should have removed the poster myself rather than allowing a student to do so.”

The banner has since been returned to the students who put it up.

A 60 foot-long banner made by students at Yale bearing the names of approximately 7,000 names of Palestinians who have been killed in the past two months by Israeli forces.
Eda Uzunlar
A 60 foot-long banner made by students at Yale bearing the names of approximately 7,000 names of Palestinians who have been killed in the past two months by Israeli forces.

Even at public institutions, where students’ rights are validated through the courts, those attempting to use their freedom of speech and expression fear repercussions.

Jane is part-Palestinian, and an organizer for the University of Connecticut’s Students for Justice in Palestine student group. She’s using a pseudonym to protect her identity as an undergraduate student. Jane has been wearing a keffiyeh around campus to not only show her support for Palestine, but also to express herself in her identity and culture.

But since dawning the scarf around school, she said she’s received comments from other students calling her a ‘terrorist’ and ‘baby-killer'.” She said she doesn’t feel adequate acknowledgement and support from her school’s administration on the subject.

“[Administration] sends emails regarding this conflict and saying how Islamophobia and anti-semitism are not allowed and shouldn't be, which is amazing,” she said. “But I think it's also disregarding the Palestinian hate that's on campus. [They’re] disregarding the fact that I'm not only being called terrorists because I'm Muslim, I'm being called a terrorist because I’m wearing a keffiyeh.”

Jane underscored that not all the hate students are facing on campus can be categorized as Islamophobia; rather, she wishes that UConn President Radenka Maric’s messages to the community would explicitly name anti-Palestinian rhetoric.

The student said the example adds to feelings shared by her peers that the president’s office has shown bias towards pro-Israel sentiments. She said the lack of acknowledgement of Palestinian students’ pain makes her feel like showcasing her identity, risky.

“It's something that I shouldn't feel unsafe about – expressing my identity. My identity shouldn’t be controversial on campus,” Jane said.

“It's something that I shouldn't feel unsafe about – expressing my identity. My identity shouldn’t be controversial on campus."

Students have protested Maric’s involvement with Israel in the past, including her 2022 trip there alongside Gov. Ned Lamont.

Jessica Baden is the president of UConn Hillel, a campus chapter of the largest international Jewish campus organization.

In late November, Baden helped organize a walk in solidarity with hostages being held in Gaza. She invited senior administrators to walk alongside them —and they showed up.

“[Maric] was able to join us for the beginning, and some other senior administrators, including Fany Hannon, who's the dean of students, and Anne D'Alleva, the provost,” she said. “We were definitely able to work with them in terms of having their support and having them be present to show support for their students.”

Baden said she does feel continued support from the president’s office through the emails that have been sent out, but that more can be done. “I do think a lot of it has kind of been performative in a sense of sending out emails and not necessarily seeing the action.”

The University of Connecticut declined an interview, but said:

“UConn supports the free-speech rights of its students and all others, and abides by protections of the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, we abhor hate and bias and will enforce our discrimination and harassment policies to the fullest extent possible. We urge everyone in the University community to treat each other with civility, respect, and empathy.”

Legal experts say combatting free speech with free speech is the most effective tool for students and administrators.

The action Baden referenced includes the implementation of a school-wide policy to remove posters that Baden said, “call for violence,” and “the killing of Jews.”

Part two of this series addresses hate speech on campus: what it really is, and what it legally is not.

Eda Uzunlar is WSHU's Poynter Fellow for Media and Journalism.