Opinions, Editorials

BC’s Student Demonstration Policy Needs To Be Updated To Better Serve Student’s Free Speech Rights

Boston College needs to ease its policies and restrictions on student demonstration to better support its students’ free speech rights.

Section 11.10 on student demonstrations in BC’s Student Code of Conduct forbids students from hosting any demonstrations without approval from the administration in advance. Students are also not allowed to disturb any day-to-day operations of the University through their demonstrations or hold events that “adversely impact the mission of Boston College, especially its Jesuit, Catholic dimensions.” 

These statutes contradict BC’s self-defined “longstanding commitment” to its students’ freedom of expression. These rules should be amended to provide a more welcoming environment where students feel comfortable voicing dissent. 

BC has a long history of hosting controversial student protests. In the late 1960s, BC community members held protests and counter-protests against Dow Chemical Company’s efforts to recruit BC students, as the company provided napalm to the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. 

And in the 1970s, UGBC organized a schoolwide class strike in response to the U.S. bombing campaign in Vietnam, in which approximately 60 percent of arts and sciences students did not show up to their classes for days. BC would not allow these protests under its current Code of Conduct, which prohibits any demonstrations from “disrupting the ordinary operation of the University.”

Protests did not stop after the nationwide unrest of the Vietnam era. In the late 1980s, students worked with recent alumni to protest BC’s denial of full professorship to prominent feminist theologian Mary Daly. Since then, BC students have protested subjects ranging from the Iraq War to racial injustice

But things are different now. In October 2021, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ranked BC at 151 out of 154 in a list comparing free speech climates on university campuses.

Interim Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Formation Claire Ostrander said in an email to The Heights that only one student demonstration was registered with the office in the last year. 

Yet, there are a variety of student organizations—registered or otherwise—that regularly and openly oppose BC’s institutional choices. 

Climate Justice at Boston College (CJBC), for example, opposes BC’s investment in fossil fuels. When the group hosted a protest where pro-divestment messages with vulgar language were sent to University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., the University sanctioned the group.  

On the other hand, BC does not even recognize Students for Sexual Health (SSH) as an official University organization, and it has routinely banned the group from distributing contraceptives on campus. As an independent organization, it would not be allowed to host student demonstrations on campus.  

Groups such as CJBC and SSH show that there are dissenting student voices that want to change the University for the better. But protest policies shielded by a veil of cherry-picked “Jesuit Values” undermine students’ abilities to advocate for themselves and others. As such, the policies set out by the University may deter student attempts to register a protest if they do not want to sit down to a meeting with a BC administrator.

To get a protest approved by the University, students must meet with the associate vice president for student engagement and formation and provide detailed plans about the event. Organizing and conducting an unregistered demonstration can result in the University punishing student demonstrators.

Section 11.10 on Student Demonstrations in the BC Student Code of Conduct further prohibits demonstrations that go against the Jesuit, Catholic mission of Boston College.

But these same Jesuit, Catholic “dimensions” that BC cites in its Student Code of Conduct do not limit student activism at peer institutions. Unlike BC, the demonstration policies of Georgetown University, Marquette University, and Loyola University Chicago—all institutions founded in the Jesuit, Catholic tradition—possess no explicitly Catholic restrictions on student demonstrations. 

In fact, the demonstration policies of Georgetown University and Loyola University Chicago cite their Jesuit, Catholic traditions to justify students’ rights to free expression. 

Georgetown University’s Speech and Expression Policy explicitly states that “to forbid or limit discourse contradicts everything the university stands for” and that “Georgetown’s identification with the Catholic and Jesuit tradition, far from limiting or compromising the ideal of free discourse, requires that we live up to that ideal.”

In Loyola University Chicago’s Community Standards, the university states that “discourse is essential for the University to uphold the Jesuit mission of ‘service of faith and promotion of justice.’” 

What’s more, at Georgetown students do not have to receive approval from the administration before staging a demonstration. Although they might be penalized for refusing to adhere to the schools’ Speech and Expression Policy, no advance notice is required to stage a demonstration.

Additionally, following a 2015 on-campus demonstration calling on the university to revise its demonstration policy to become more inclusive and accessible, Loyola updated its policy in numerous ways. Among these changes, students no longer have to receive formal approval for demonstrations.

For BC to cite its Jesuit, Catholic identity as an excuse to censor certain student protests places it in contradiction with the policies of peer institutions adhering to the same faith system. 

BC should review its demonstration parameters in its Student Code of Conduct to make registering student demonstrations a less intimidating process. BC should either clarify what is meant by “its Jesuit, Catholic dimensions” in section 11.10 or remove this clause altogether. 

In limiting the rights of certain groups to protest on campus, BC actually goes against the Jesuit, Catholic practice of disputation—the teaching that “between faith and reason there can be no fundamental conflict”—and the value of the autonomy of reason—that is, free thought—as laid out in Georgetown University’s Speech and Expression Policy.

As an institution seeking “to be the national leader in the liberal arts” and “to support students in their formation,” BC has a responsibility to its students to allow a variety of demonstrations and live up to other Jesuit, Catholic peer institutions by respecting the fundamental right for its students to protest freely.

February 26, 2023