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President Smith: Peaceful protest at Swarthmore

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

Peaceful protest and free speech have always been central to Swarthmore’s ethos, history, and identity. Today I want to reaffirm our long-standing commitment to the right of our students and all members of our community to protest peacefully. This right is among our proudest traditions and most essential values.

In April and May of 2015, students sat in peaceful protest in the hallway outside the Investment Office for almost five weeks, without incurring any conduct violations whatsoever. In fact, our student conduct policy explicitly and unequivocally supports students’ right to express their views, feelings, and beliefs inside and outside the classroom and to support causes publicly, including by demonstration. The policy clearly states, however, that these freedoms of expression must not “impinge on the rights of other members of the community” or the “essential operations of the College.” Disrupting the work of staff members or of an office violates this policy and intrudes on the rights of individuals.

On February 24, a group of ​three dozen community members who are passionate about climate change and support divestment, ​held a sit-in on the second floor of Parrish Hall in front of the Investment Office, the same hallway as in 2015. It was their right to do so, as it was in 2015. Most of the assembled students remained in the hallway, but some crowded into the Chief Investment Officer’s small office, preventing him from completing all but the most menial of tasks and restricting his movements and rights. The students who occupied the Investment Office were warned multiple times that they were in violation of the student conduct policy and were given the chance to move to the hallway to continue their protest. Several chose to return to the hallway; five others chose to remain in the office despite multiple warnings that they were occupying a staff member’s workspace and preventing him from doing his job.

Refusal to leave a staff member’s office clearly does not adhere to our student conduct policy. That policy needs to be applied equally and consistently, no matter who breaches it. And when there are intentional breaches, it is fair that those doing so face potential consequences which might include a warning or probation.

Here at Swarthmore we have focused considerable attention and resources on changing our energy use on our campus. We are now leading efforts to galvanize the institution of a carbon charge on college and university campuses around the country, and we are encouraging other higher education institutions to support carbon pricing publicly. Faculty in our Environmental Studies program offer courses that educate our students about the causes and consequences of climate change so that they might be empowered to create solutions to this urgent challenge. More than a dozen student organizations are dedicated to sustainability and to making a positive difference on this campus and in the world. While we may disagree with those who support divestment as a strategy, we agree on fundamental principles, including our deep commitment to environment sustainability and our enduring respect for peaceful protest both on this campus and beyond.

Valerie Smith, President

 

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