By Rod Lotter
– The Capitol Hill Times -
Educational institutes are supposed to foster free speech, but a new proposal for Seattle community colleges threatens to do the exact opposite.
The first of two public hearings about the proposal was held on March 27 and a second meeting is scheduled at 3 p.m. at the Seattle Community College District Office, 1550 Harvard Ave., April 5.
More than 50 protesters were present at the first public hearing, which included professors from Seattle Central and other schools in the area, concerned citizens, local media and a large, vocal throng of Occupy Seattle members. No one present at the public hearing spoke in favor of the new rules.
On its surface, the proposal seems to be a direct response to the problems that arose when Occupy Seattle camped on Seattle Central’s campus during the Fall. The new rules being proposed by the Board of Trustees are a meant to restrict any group from doing anything similar to what Occupy Seattle did during those chilly days by:
1. Allowing protests to occur on campus only between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.
2. Requiring that protests can only be eight hours long for student groups and five hours long for non-student groups.
3. Permitting protesters to only carry one sign, which could not be larger than three feet by five feet.
4. Creating “free speech zones,” which would restrict protests to certain areas of campus
During the public hearing, Occupy Seattle member Mark Taylor Canfield pointed out what he perceived as the absurdity of the new rules by holding up two signs – one in each hand.
“What I have here is my message to the Board. I don’t know if you can read these two signs,” Canfield said. He then held up two pieces of paper which read “you are taking away from free speech.” “By holding these signs, according to the new proposed rules, I would be subject to arrest for trespass,” he said.
A misdemeanor trespass charge in the state can result in up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000. Last month, a group of Occupy Seattle members known as the Chase 5 were found not guilty of trespass stemming from a protest in which they chained themselves together inside of a Chase bank on Nov. 2. Another group of Occupiers will face trespass charges this month stemming from the occupation of a warehouse on 10th and Union in December. Sixteen were arrested during the occupation.
Many professors from the district vented their frustrations with the proposal and also pointed out that the school has no ability to enforce the new rules. Many also felt the public hearings would have no influence on the Board of Trustees’ decision to pass the rules or change the rules to meet the public’s concerns, according to hearing attendees.
One of the new rules will seek to ban protests that block or disrupt community college activities. So, even if a protest occurred on public property – like a street in front of the school – the college could still seek to evict the participants, or get the police to evict them, if the school can prove that the protest is disruptive.
Community member Ed Lamberg, who spoke at the public hearing, said that the definition of “disruptive” is arbitrary and vague and therefore difficult to enforce.
The language of the proposal dictates that disruptive actions can be, but are not limited to, large signs, noise that can disrupt a classroom, damaged or dirtied areas caused by protesters, any obstruction of streets, parking lots, entrances and exits to college facilities, and any kind of overnight camping on campus.
Many people, including several professors, criticized the Board’s decision to hold the public hearing during Spring Break and with very little notice. The Board had originally only one public hearing scheduled, but then decided to add another hearing on April 5 to accommodate students and faculty who may have been out of town during the break.
Deborah Higdon, a part-time Information Technology and Psychology professor at Seattle Central for more than a decade, was one the most impassioned speakers – out of many – who spoke up at the public hearing.
“It’s not a coincidence that this meeting was held during the one week the school is on break,” Higdon said. “It doesn’t matter what we say today. We don’t get to vote and what we say today won’t change that vote.”
After the two public hearings, the Board of Trustees will receive a summary of the public’s comments. The Board will then take into account the public comments during their decision-making process, according to the Seattle Community Colleges website. The first reading of the new rules, post-public comment, will occur during a meeting on April 12 and the second reading will take place on May 17. The new protest restrictions are expected to take effect afterwards