Last week, Boston College denied Climate Justice’s permit for a demonstration because the group is not yet recognized by the University. As a result, outsiders from the Boston community staged a protest on campus in favor of greater freedom of speech and divestment from fossil fuel companies this past Sunday. While I have personal reservations about “outsiders” leading a cause on a private campus, I do applaud the Boston College administration for allowing the protest to take place with minimal, if any, overreaction. That said, this letter is not meant to address Sunday’s protest, but how we got there: in a clear breach of contract, BC precipitated Sunday’s protest and, if it doesn’t change, will precipitate even more.
The Code of Conduct, which governs the rights and responsibilities of students, acts as a contract between students and the University. When students violate this contract, BC takes disciplinary action. When BC violates the contract, students can sue for breach of contract—a civil wrong—in civil court. Under the current Code, “All student members of the Boston College community” have the “right to express opinion, which includes the right to state agreement or disagreement with the opinions of others and the right to an appropriate forum for the expression of opinion.” Naturally, those same students have the “responsibility to respect the values and traditions of Boston College as a Jesuit, Catholic institution,” and “obligation to refrain from conduct that violates or adversely affects the rights of other members of the Boston College community.”
To help balance these rights and responsibilities, the Code of Conduct also has a policy on demonstrations. Students who wish to voice their opinion by means of “a public speech, rally, demonstration, march, or protest” must first get approval from the Dean of Students, who may also regulate the time, place, and manner of such activity. Because BC guarantees every individual student the right to express his or her opinion and the right to do so in an appropriate forum, one would expect the demonstration policy to apply equally to all students. Indeed, since its creation nearly a decade ago, the policy has always applied to both individual students and student organizations. As of this semester, however, BC has unilaterally reinterpreted the policy to apply only to registered student organizations. This decision was neither publicly announced nor communicated clearly to students. In fact, most students still don’t know this change occurred.
As a private institution, BC can set its own policies and some flexibility in adhering to those policies is reasonable. Flexibility, however, cannot and should not be a cover for genuine breaches of contract. To suddenly interpret “All student members” as “only student organizations” is to transgress against standard language; to ignore a decade’s worth of precedent is to act arbitrarily; and to make this change quietly is to act in a sub rosa fashion. None of this represents a good faith effort by BC to adhere substantially to the terms of its policies. Of course, this is only made more ironic by the fact that to criticize or question such a change publicly, one would need a demonstration permit and would—like the case of Climate Justice—be denied by the very same people who changed the policy without warning in the first case. (Oof, isn’t that convenient.)
It could very well be the case that, upon reflection, Boston College realized its demonstration policy was always meant to apply only to student organizations. In fact, it could be the case that the policy has been misapplied for a decade. But that’s besides the point. To change a widely understood policy with clear language—language BC chose—to mean something fundamentally different in the middle of the academic year and without notice is a breach of contract and a dangerous precedent. Whether this reinterpretation was prompted by concerns over an uptick in student activism on campus or genuine reflections on the policy, it must be recognized for what it is and what it means. If policies are to have any legitimacy, they cannot be changed, reinterpreted, or misapplied unilaterally and without warning. As we know, BC certainly won’t let students break their promises so why should students expect any less of the University? It is unlikely students would (or should) sue for breach of contract, but BC must stop risking its reputation and exposing itself to lawsuits. After all, aren’t the current Belfast and sexual assault due process contract breach lawsuits enough?
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Editor