The board’s visitors
Virginia state law was violated when protestors were not permitted to attend last week’s Board meeting
When the Board of Visitors met last Thursday, Nov. 8, it did so in an atypical location — the Harrison Institute, rather than the standard Rotunda. And although the room in which they met had an official crowd capacity of 300 people — with only 70 already in attendance — several student protestors were denied access to the meeting for unknown reasons, including an alleged lack of chairs. About 30 students were thus forced to leave the Harrison Institute under the threat of expulsion. Regardless of the specific cause, in this case, a group known as Hoos University aiming to reform the Board, the administration acted wrongly in thwarting protestors from attending the Board’s public meeting.
The sequence of events Thursday began at the Rotunda at noon. There, Hoos University gathered in protest, waving posters before proceeding to march to the Harrison Institute. After congregating outside the building as Board members arrived, the group — composed of largely undergraduates, but also several faculty and graduate students — descended the stairs in hopes of attending the meeting. Only seven of them were allowed entry while those remaining upstairs were greeted by a bevy of police officers and eventually asked to leave.
The University most prominently intervened in a student protest in 2006, when protestors from the Living Wage Campaign had occupied Madison Hall. Then, students were arrested – and the administration’s commitment to preventing disruption on campus has in other instances as well prevented the expression of speech. One notable example is when President Obama was disallowed from speaking in front of Harrison Institute in September because it would interrupt classes.
On the whole, though, the University has made improvements in its speech policy since the Living Wage arrests made in 2006. Updates to the University code made in 2010 gave the University a “green light” on free speech regulations, as judged by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Dean of Students Allen Groves himself praised the lack of police presence at the numerous protests of Board meetings that took place in the summer, when only one officer was stationed at the Rotunda. This is a far cry from the 18 officers at the Board meeting last Thursday, according to The Hook.
Despite these changes, Dean Groves said in a September email that officials would still limit protests based on “reasonable time, place and manner considerations.” For instance, he said, if a protest were to pose a safety concern or interrupt University operations, it would not be allowed.
These concerns, however, are trumped by the Board’s accountability to the public as required by Virginia Code and also its manual. “All meetings of public bodies shall be open,” according to the Virginia Code, in terms that are simple enough. As Thursday’s Board meeting was in open, and not closed session, the student protestors should have been admitted. No matter how the administration felt about the messages written on Hoos University’s signs, it should have remembered to uphold those words written into state law.