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Free Speech & Student Power

OU students make up the majority of Athens. Yet our current city government not only helps corrupt slumlords exploit students, it helps corrupt university administrators violate students’ First Amendment rights.

 

 

A City Government That Helps OU Illegally Silence Student Opposition to Trump

 

On February 1, 2017, Ohio University carried out its largest mass arrest of students since the Vietnam War era, and likely the second largest arrest of student activists in OU’s 215-year history. The mass arrest was in response to hundreds of OU students (and other concerned community members, including me) gathering in Baker Center to protest the Trump administration’s first racist travel ban. The 70 people arrested for doing so – almost all of them OU students arrested for "trespassing" on their own campus – were dubbed the Baker 70.

The Athens Police Department helped OUPD carry out the wrongful arrests of the Baker 70, and then the City Law Department, led by County Democratic Party stalwart Lisa Eliason, made the decision to prosecute the Baker 70 on false charges. After OU and the City lost one of the criminal cases, the charges were dropped. But that was not until after Eliason's law department had intimidated 15 members of those arrested into accepting plea bargains, whereby they were automatically convicted of lesser (but equally false) charges – and those convictions still stand.

Our current city government is controlled by Democrats and has been for decades, with virtually zero opposition. Yet these Democrats have played an instrumental role in helping the Republican-appointed OU Board of Trustees illegally suppress student opposition to the fascist, white supremacist-backed presidential administration of Donald Trump. Thus to protect our civil liberties and vulnerable minority populations from Trump, we need to not only oppose the Republican Party – we need to oppose its enablers within the Democratic Party, too. And our local Democratic establishment is full of such enablers.

What’s more, the arrest of the Baker 70 was not an isolated incident. After university administrators and their collaborators in city government failed to win convictions on the original false charges against the Baker 70, administrators instituted a new policy banning protests from occurring within all campus buildings. The Ohio ACLU quickly denounced the policy as unconstitutional – and no doubt it was. As a government institution, Ohio University only has the legal right to place constraints on the time, place, and manner of student protest when doing so is necessary to prevent a serious disruption of normal university activities or to protect public safety and the rights of bystanders. However, there is no legal justification for a blanket policy banning all indoor protests, regardless of any specific concerns regarding public safety and the rights of bystanders. And indeed, the reason the university and city lost its case against the Baker 70 was that the court determined that indoor demonstration did not pose any threat to public safety or the rights of bystanders.

After facing a solid year of opposition from student, faculty, alumni and concerned community members, OU administrators finally replaced their unconstitutional blanket ban on indoor campus protests with more selective but no less unconstitutional restrictions on indoor campus protests. Among the areas where OU's current policy still bans indoor protests is the Baker Center Rotunda, where the Baker 70 demonstrations occurred. And, as the court noted in the first and last Baker 70 trial before the original charges were dropped, the Baker 70 demonstration was not something OU had the legal right to disperse. 

I believe it is precisely because OU administrators know the law is not on their side that they have put forward these policies as an audacious bluff. Rather than the policies being designed to achieve a courtroom victory administrators have already learned they can't win, the policies are more likely intended to trick students into thinking administrators have greater legal power than administrators actually have. Thus students may be intimidated and confused into silencing themselves. And as a potential side benefit, the new policy may also fool students into thinking that since the law isn’t on their side, they may just as well engage in truly illegal protest activities, for which the university actually could win criminal convictions.

These policies were drafted by OU’s top attorney, General Counsel John Biancamano, signed into effect by OU President Duane Nellis, and supported by the OU Board of Trustees. What makes these officials' actions so shamefully corrupt is that a governmental educational institution like Ohio University is not only supposed to refrain from violating students’ basic civil liberties, an institution like OU is supposed to pro-actively teach students about their rights and work to protect those rights. Yet in a complete inversion of their public mission, these university officials keep attempting to break the law with impunity, not only by violating students rights but by miseducating students about their rights.

And while this kind of corruption on the part of OU administrators now ends up supporting the Trump administration’s racist policies, multiple generations of OU administrators have a sordid history of illegally suppressing student speech that predates Trump. Often these OU administrators simply have been motivated by their desire to escape public accountability, advance their careers, and fatten their wallets at everyone else’s expense.

Now that I've spoken about unconstitutional campus speech restrictions in the Trump era, let me tell you about campus free speech struggles form my days as an OU student activist and how they relate to today's struggles and my plans as Athens's next mayor.

 

 

OU Administrators’ Long History of Advancing Their Careers by Silencing Students

 

Back in February 2002, I joined with other OU students to organize a walkout in protest of administrators’ response to campus sexual assault and anti-LGBT hate crimes. During an eight-day stretch that January, three female students had reported being sexually assaulted, and one lesbian student had reported being jumped and beaten by multiple assailants as she walked home on campus from an LGBT dance party uptown.

Back then OU led all public universities and colleges in the state of Ohio with the highest number of rapes reported in residence halls. But not many people knew, since, as I discovered in the lead-up to our walkout, from at least October 1998 through March 2002 OU had been violating federal law (specifically, the Clery Act) in order to hide from its students and employees not only campus crime statistics, but also information on crime prevention, reporting and survivor support – all illegal actions by administrators that likely increased sexual violence at OU. (For more information, see my February 27, 2017 Athens News column.) Meanwhile, administrators kept busy telling female students to drink less alcohol and not walk alone at night.

Needless to say, we student activists had a lot to talk about, and we wanted to be heard. So we planned for our walkout to culminate in an open mic style rally at the most iconic, accessible, centrally located, highly visible location we could think of – one we knew from black and white photos from the Vietnam War era had been the site of countless demonstrations over the years: the Civil War Monument on College Green.

Administrators quickly stepped in to tell us the monument was off-limits, and that OUPD would arrest students for trespassing on our own campus if we tried to rally there. (See my video footage of OU officials making, and later denying, this threat.) The 2002 version of the recently updated Ohio University policy 24.016 “Use of Outdoor Spaces on the Athens Campus” restricted outdoor student protests to a limited number of mostly out-of-the-way campus locations (pejoratively dubbed “free speech zones”) that students had to apply to reserve in advance. The Civil War monument on College Green was not one of these locations.

What’s more, administrators informed us that OU was being sued by an off-campus group that wanted access to the monument – namely, a traveling band of misogynistic, heterosexist, Christian fundamentalist street preachers led by Charles “Brother Chuck” Spingola, an imposing, wild-eyed body builder with slicked-back hair who carried his bible in a gun holster. For years he had appeared on various Midwest campuses to denounce students as fornicators, sodomites and baby-killers in highly animated sermons which, at OU and elsewhere, were occasionally marred by violence and dozens of times ended with his arrest.

Spingola had made headlines in 1998 for an altercation in which he broke the nose of a Kent State University student, and in 1999 for climbing a flagpole at the Ohio Statehouse to tear down and then burn a rainbow flag during the Columbus Pride Parade. At the 2001 Pride Parade, he was arrested for splashing gasoline on a female parade security worker.

A year after the 2002 OU student walkout, the group The Army of God published a letter in which Spingola praised James Charles Kopp, Eric Rudolph and Clayton Lee Wagner for being what Spingola called “Christian terrorists” and “[t]hose blessed few who actually terrify the wicked.” (Kopp was convicted of the 1998 sniper-style murder of OB/GYN Barnett Slepian; Rudolph of bombing the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, as well as the 1997 bombings of abortion clinics in Atlanta and Birmingham, and of an Atlanta lesbian bar; and Wagner of a foiled 1999 plot to bomb multiple abortion clinics, a 2001 anthrax hoax, and a 1992 bank robbery.)

“As cream rising to the top of the milk, so the Christian terrorist rises above the huddled masses of churchgoers and the many voices which denounce their violent attempts to defend the innocent from their murderous assailants,” he wrote.

At the same time, Spingola’s own violence had already endeared him to other militant fundamentalist Christians.

“The student turned and swung at Chuck, but he ducked and countered with a punch that broke the degenerate’s nose in three places. Praise the Lord!” the fundamentalist newsletter Campus Ministry, USA gushed after the 1998 incident at Kent State. “[Another student] came charging at Chuck flaring his arms like a sissy, but one swing from Chuck sent him to the pavement. Hallelujah!”

Spingola wanted to flex his muscles and spew his hate from the monument, but administrators had ordered him off university property and onto the adjacent public sidewalk. On at least one occasion, he refused and had been arrested. His 2002 lawsuit alleged that the First Amendment entitled him to preach on campus property.

Surely students and administrators could all agree that Spingola should be kept off campus, right? And although it wasn’t true, administrators claimed the consequence of allowing students to rally at the monument against misogynistic and heterosexist campus violence would be opening campus to the violent misogynist and heterosexist Spingola.

“Whatever space is made available we have to make equally available to anyone regardless of their message,” then Dean of Students Terry Hogan told us in the video linked above.

“If an event such as [the 2002 walkout rally] is held at the monument and we don’t act consistently with what we’ve done in the past with the preachers, it kind of ruins our case,” claimed then Associate Director of Baker Center (and Terry’s brother) Tim Hogan, who handled reservations for College Green sites. “For example, I would go out to ask the preachers [to leave campus property] and they would ignore me. We’d call OUPD. They’d ask them to leave. They’d be ignored. And then [the preachers] would be arrested… If they stay and resist the order to disperse, police have arrested them. That’s what we’ve done in the past. We’re being advised that we should stay consistent with that if we want to win our legal case.”

But if letting Spingola and company speak on campus was the price of our rally, many student activists were willing to pay it.

“I would rather sacrifice having to listen to [Spingola] talk to me for like 30 seconds, so that I can be able to say what I want to say, too,” then OU student Sarah Robertson told Terry Hogan and then Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Sostarich at an impromptu meeting in Cutler Hall.

“I feel way less offended by them preaching to us on the sidewalk than [by] us not being able to talk without getting an ultimatum of getting arrested. That’s way more offensive to me,” then OU student Yvette Nepper stressed.

Regardless, the whole issue was a smokescreen. What OU officials told students was patently false, and they knew it. Well-established case law allowed (and still allows) university administrators to make a distinction between, on the one hand, groups and individuals affiliated with the university (such as students, faculty, and staff) and, on the other hand, groups and individuals unaffiliated with the university (such as the street preachers of 2002 –or the prominent white supremacists of today– who aren’t students, faculty or staff), and to then place greater restrictions on members of the latter category when it comes to providing, denying, or otherwise regulating access to university facilities. Furthermore, in 2002, the university already had in place longstanding policies and practices that made such distinctions.

“Clearly there are areas on campus that are available for groups affiliated with the university, and those same areas are not available for groups unaffiliated with the university,” I pointed out to Tim Hogan in the video above. “For instance, you mentioned the Howard Hall site when we spoke yesterday. So my question is, if a distinction can be made at the Howard Hall site between students and non-students, those affiliated with the university and those unaffiliated with it, what’s so special about the monument? Why can’t that same distinction be made there?”

 

Tim Hogan’s response?

 

“It can be, but it’s not.”

 

Shortly after our walkout, a court dismissed Spingola’s lawsuit and upheld OU’s right to separately regulate affiliated and unaffiliated entities’ access to campus facilities. It is highly unlikely that a student rally at the monument ever would have jeopardized OU’s case. But much more telling was that even after Spingola’s lawsuit was out of the way, OU continued to ban student protests at the monument.

Because organizers of the 2002 walkout did not want to subject survivors of campus sexual and heterosexist violence to potentially violent arrest at the hands of university police, we had grudgingly agreed to move our rally from the monument to West Portico of Memorial Auditorium. Luckily, the 300-person walkout rally was large enough and attracted enough media attention that, along with the campaign for university reform that followed, we succeeded in forcing OU into compliance with the Clery Act and, according to then Student Senate President Katherine Smith, played an instrumental role in pressuring the administration to agree to Smith’s proposal to set aside space in the planned construction of the “new” Baker Center to create OU’s campus women’s center, which first opened its doors in 2007. But we still believed the monument would have been a better, more visible location for our walkout rally and for many other campus protests.

In the years that followed, student resistance to OU’s outdoor restrictions on speech and assembly continued. In the brick walkway a dozen feet from the monument, in a location then still officially off-limits to student protests, the Class of 2005 inserted a plaque defiantly stating, “College Green has served as a forum for the voices of Ohio University students throughout its history. Whether supporting civil rights, advocating for the abolishment (sic) of women’s curfews, or in protest, students have and will continue to play a vital role in shaping Ohio University.”

After OU again threatened to arrest students for trespassing at the monument in order to disperse an anti-war rally there in the fall of 2006, the OU chapter of Students for a Democratic Society made opposing OU’s limited free speech zones one of its top priorities. In 2007 SDS held two demonstrations at the monument in violation of OU policy and marched into Cutler Hall to demand that all of campus be made a free speech zone.

Undergraduate Student Senate began lobbying administrators to increase the number of outdoor free speech zones, but after Graduate Student Senate stepped in to support SDS’s goal of totally abolishing the restrictions, students finally won. According to then GSS president Dominic Barbato and then SDS organizer Will Klatt, in Fall 2007 OU administrators agreed to students’ demands to make all outdoor campus property available for students to engage in constitutionally protected speech and assembly, as long as students gave administrators 24 hours advance notice.

Indeed, even current OU policy states, “The unscheduled use of outdoor spaces for the purpose of engaging in constitutionally protected speech shall be permitted provided the space has not already been reserved by another user and that the unscheduled use does not result in disruption as defined [in the policy] below.”

 

My History of Fighting to Protect Student Free Speech Rights

& to Advance Student Power

 

I first began fighting for students' rights when I was still in high school, 23 years ago. During my senior year, three sophomore students had created a little zine they called Hide and Go Speak. As soon as the students passed out their first issue, they were called down to the principal’s office and told they could not hand out a student publication at school unless they first allowed the principal to edit its contents. Since they had not done so, they were all punished with several after school detentions, and that was the end of Hide and Go Speak.

But, rights or no rights, I liked what those kids were trying to do. So I went ahead and organized another student publication called Free Head, which was a public access zine democratically managed by its contributors. My first foray into both journalism and community organizing, Free Head became an empowering forum for community dialogue that had not previously existed in the lives of teenagers at my school. The experience taught me that a group of people could be extremely productive without a central authority figure dictating their course; that open dialogue can generate a community; and that ordinarily disempowered people could organize to defeat those in power. It had a tremendously positive and transformative impact on my life. But it wasn’t until a couple years after high school that I learned our principal had simply lied to the creators of Hide and Go Speak and had illegally violated their rights by punishing these kids and banning their zine. Students at all American high schools actually had legal protection to do what we had done with Free Head – the problem was just that no one ever tells them.

The First Amendment was a concession early American elites granted in order to get the Constitution ratified. It really didn’t mean anything in practice until mass movements of ordinary people made it mean something – and that’s true for student press rights, too.

Back in the mid 1960s, a group of families in Des Moines, Iowa decided to express their opposition to the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. Some of their kids wore these armbands to school, for which the children were threatened with violence by school officials and then promptly kicked out of school. The families and allied individuals and organizations fought back, and eventually this resulted in the 1969 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The Tinker decision did several things, but most importantly it established the right of public high school students to distribute independent student publications at school.

What seemed to be missing was a group that would seek out potential independent student journalists, give them information on their press rights at school, and support them in the struggle to make their voices heard. I pitched the idea of forming such an organization to some friends of mine who I had worked with at Free Head, and just before New Years 1999, my friend Lisa O’Keefe and I co-founded Free Student Press. She and I were both just 19 years old at the time. And in response to proposals we sent out to numerous progressive education and students rights organizations, the Institute for Democracy in Education (a group then based in Athens) invited us to move to Athens in the summer of 1999 in order to launch Free Student Press here that fall.

3 weeks after FSP's launch, students at Nelsonville-York High Schoolpublished the first issue of their zine Lockdown and distributed it at their school. Immediately, the NYHS principal threatened to suspend all of the students involved if “anything like this ever turns up again.” Then he informed the family of Lockdown’s lead publisher, Devin Aeh Canary, that a suspension would likely prevent her from becoming class valedictorian. Later, school authorities falsely accused the students of promoting drugs and violence through their publication, and local police were called upon to illegally break up a meeting about the paper the students were trying to hold at a public park. The superintendent, meanwhile, issued a press release declaring members of FSP irresponsible outside agitators who had made children feel unsafe at school, and he pressured officials at OU (where I was an undergraduate education major) to try to get me to stop FSP’s work.

The conflict was intense, and it lasted for nearly four months. But with FSP’s support the Nelsonville-York students mobilized so much community support that they completely defeated both their school administration and local police. The students kept publishing Lockdown, and the school’s principal resigned. Free Student Press continued to work with area high school students until 2005, and I have continued to educate students about their press rights on and off ever since.

 

What I’ll do as Mayor

 

 

Freedom of speech and assembly are essential to campus and community organizing. Campus and community organizing is essential to students learning how to defend their own interests and have a voice in our society. And all of this is essential to democracy.

Therefore, the Athens city government should not be helping corrupt Ohio University administrators to miseducate students, to violate students’ constitutional rights, to wrongfully arresting students, to wrongfully prosecuting students, or to intimidating students into accepting please bargains that convict them of false charges. Indeed, the Athens city government has a duty to protect the constitutional rights of residents, and OU students are the majority of residents. Thus far our current city government has been on precisely the wrong side of an issue that's of utmost importance to the people of Athens, and mayor I will do everything in my power to change that.

If elected Mayor, I will bring to bear my 23 years of experience advancing student rights, student power, and grassroots democracy to do everything in my power to defeat OU’s unconstitutional speech restrictions and the corrupt officials behind them. This will include but in no way be limited to preventing the Athens Police Department from assisting OUPD in its violation of students' rights. 

There are many reasons to defeat OU's unconstitutional speech restrictions. But one is to create a more conducive environment for us all of us to organize more powerful grassroots resistance to the racist and otherwise egregiously wrong policies of the Trump administration. 

An except from Damon Krane's documentary on the 2002 OU Walkout Demands Campaign, in which OU officials threaten to arrest students for trespassing on their own campus if students held a demonstration at the monument on College Green, and then deny making the threat.

Damon Krane's 2015 documentary and Kickstarter campaign video covers the educational philosophy of Free Student Press as well as the free speech struggle at Nelsonville-York High School over the indepndent student publication Lockdown. The segment on Lockdown begins at the 17:21 mark.  

A 23-year veteran of students rights struggles, Damon Krane speaks at OU's Scripps College of Communications as part of a 2001 panel discussion on student press rights hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists. 

Photo by the Athens News' Dennis Powell. The February 1, 2017 demonstration against Trump's first racist travel ban at Baker Center, where OU, acting with the support of the Athens city government, wrongfully arrested 70 demonstrators in the university's largest mass arrest of student activists since 1972, and likely the second largest mass arrest in OU's 215-year history.

A clipping from the February 6, 2002 edition of the Ohio University Post.