Free Speech Repression At Hampton
December 2, 2005 - 5:32pm ET
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What’s the proper protocol for protest? If you’re a student at Hampton University, not knowing could get you expelled .
Earlier today, seven Hampton students faced an expulsion hearing for their participation in a national student walk-out on Nov. 2 to protest the war in Iraq. They distributed leaflets that contained information about the rising costs of the war as well as information on Hurricane Katrina and AIDS.
The historically black university claims this is not about the students’ political views, but how they violated university protocol by not getting proper authorization to distribute the flyers.
Here’s the Catch-22: In order to distribute flyers on campus at Hampton, one needs to be part of a recognized campus organization. The students facing expulsion are members of Amnesty International, a group that has tried for three years to gain official recognition, only to fail each time. The cause? “Lost paperwork.” Other students at Hampton have claimed that business-oriented and conservative groups have an easier time gaining recognition than groups like Amnesty International. I can't say whether this is the case since I go to Howard University and have not seen this firsthand.
What I do know is this isn’t the first time Hampton administrators have tried to stifle free speech. In 2003, Hampton suffered a public relations nightmare after the acting president of the school, Dr. JoAnn W. Haysbert, confiscated 6,500 copies of the student newspaper after the editors declined to run a letter written by Haysbert on the front page, as she requested.
Hampton is a private institution and therefore is not as strictly bound by the First Amendment as public schools. The administrators have the right to set and enforce the rules that they want to, however reactionary and Draconian they may be.
However, is this really the kind of environment Hampton (a place with a long history of political activism) wants for its students? The kind of environment that limits free speech, smacks down anyone who questions the status quo, and encourages complacency?
I find it ironic that Hampton is considering expelling seven students for protesting when just yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala. That act, which definitely went against the “proper protocol” of her day, sparked a successful 366-day boycott and galvanized the Civil Rights Movement that is so revered today. What message is Hampton’s administration trying to send? That my generation should study protesters but not emulate them and apply their strategies in our own lives?
I also find it ironic that my generation is often portrayed as slackers too engrossed in MTV, BET, iPods and the Internet to be bothered with political activism. Yet, when students finally become engaged in politics, they are told in so many words they should be seen and not heard.
In this post-9/11 world, we need more students like the Hampton Seven—students who aren’t afraid to question authority, be politically conscious and spread that message to others.
UPDATE: Fortunately, none of the students were expelled. After their hearing, five of the seven students were required to perform 20 hours of community service. A sixth student received a warning and a seventh student has not received a letter. This is good news, but I'm taking it with a grain of salt. Who's to say something like this couldn't happen again, at Hampton or other colleges? Universities are supposed to be hotbeds of political discourse and action, and I would hate for a "no-dissent" policy to become the norm, especially when we have three more years of Bush to put up with.
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