Opinions, Column, Featured Column

When Unregistered Means Unwanted

Boston College has a problem with freedom of expression that we have all felt at some point.

Earlier this month, the Office of the Dean of Students updated the demonstrations policy of the Code of Student Conduct, clarifying that individual students are able to register demonstrations. These changes come in the wake of last year’s Eradicate BC Racism protests, in which several students received disciplinary sanctions after holding unregistered protests.

This “update” supposedly did not change anything. I can’t seem to track down the specific wording of the old student demonstration policy, but the updated version can be found here, just under the section on sexual activity which claims that students who have sex “outside the bonds of matrimony” may be referred to the student conduct system.

I didn’t read up on BC’s free speech policy before coming here, and I wonder if knowing about the limitations would have impacted my decision to attend, interested as I am in the free expression of ideas, as well as silly and/or artistic demonstrations.

Once, in my senior year of high school, I decorated a bunch of birdhouses with pictures of Pitbull and Meryl Streep before hanging them in the trees around the campus. This is, of course, not the same as a serious demonstration or protest, but BC seems to highly regulate what students and organizations do in common spaces. Even silly things can be seen as threatening.

I am involved in a particular unregistered student publication at BC. Let’s just say my favorite meal on campus is Hillside’s New England Classic sandwich: sumptuous cranberry bread, thin sliced turkey, cheddar cheese, finished with crisp green apple slices and served with chips and a pickle.

Free speech is very important to this club, and it is part of the reason we have remained an unofficial student organization since our founding, besides the fact that there is probably a lot of paperwork involved in registering as an official club. As an independent group, we can publish what we want without any censorship from the University.

Our social events aren’t heavily monitored, and we can plan trips and events without checking in with BC. Our sense of rebellion against the administration breeds an immense sense of camaraderie among members, and we as students take full responsibility in running the club, meaning we learn invaluable leadership skills as we organize everything on our own.

But being an unregistered organization has its drawbacks. We receive no funding from the University, nor can we reserve space on campus for meetings and events. This means that maintaining the website, publishing print editions, merchandise—all of it falls on members.

Just weeks ago during the Student Involvement Fair, we were attempting to recruit new freshmen members. My pals and I first set up a sign and boom box outside the fair, before a lovely woman in an Office of Student Involvement (OSI) polo shirt asked us to leave.

Not being one to give up easily, I led my group to the quad outside Lyons where we continued to dance merrily and hand out promotional material. Again we were asked to leave.

For a while we gave up and set up shop at the sidewalk on College Road, literally kicked to the curb with the other groups rejected from the fair. This included the young gentlemen of the underground frat, a newly established surfing club, and Students for Sexual Health.

It was a mishmash of unrelated people who otherwise would never be together. Honestly, those frat guys made me very uncomfortable. Any group without any purported nonsocial purpose makes me uneasy. Without mutual goals to work toward together, what do they spend all their time doing?

Anyway, the moral of the story is that if you don’t play by BC’s rules, you are not welcome here as an organization. I understand that the Student Involvement Fair is organized by the Office of Student Involvement (OSI), and designed for only registered student groups. But this denies many other groups from effectively recruiting new members, and creates the sense that groups must be approved by the University to be legitimate.

The mere presence of unregistered clubs at BC shows that people are sick of abiding by silly rules in order to pass out material and recruit new members. The fact that we were prevented from doing that means we may have lost out on gaining valuable new people, and allowing freshmen to join our communities.

The frustration with registering official clubs parallels students’ frustration with having to register to show their freedom of speech. Right now only official groups and individuals are allowed to organize demonstrations, shouldn’t we all be given the same respect by OSI?

Registered groups clearly have a priority on this campus because they follow the rules. And the new update to the freedom of speech policy does help, but there shouldn’t have been a perceived divide between registered and unregistered groups in the first place.

We all deserve the right to voice our opinions. Forcing students to get approval for demonstrations is effectively censoring us, and we need spaces that are available for everyone to voice their ideas. I propose a granite platform in the middle of campus where anyone can go at any time and shout their announcements to whoever will listen, sort of like a medieval town crier.

Georgetown University, a fellow Jesuit institution, has a similar free speech policy in place. Certain areas on campus are considered public squares, available without arrangement for individuals and groups during daylight hours. Certain information and communication channels are open to any individual member of the university community such as flyering, undesignated bulletin boards, chalking messages in the square, or tabling in public square areas.

The current free speech policy is restrictive, whether or not it is applied to RSOs or individuals leading non-registered student groups.

So yeah, we eventually went back to the chaotic, flyer blanketed student involvement fair where we found an empty table. Apparently some “real” group hadn’t bothered to show up, or wasn’t interested in recruiting new members. We were.

Just 15 minutes later we were asked to leave by a now sweaty and exasperated OSI representative. She forced a smile, but the words she said led me to believe she wasn’t actually happy, and that I wasn’t actually welcome.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor

September 24, 2017