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Tent City Sparks Student-Activist Policy Debate

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BURLINGTON - Anyone who's been around the University of Vermont long enough remembers some incarnation of "tent city" - the iconic student protest camp. Every few years, a group of inspired collegiate activists decides to sleep out on the green in front of Morrill Hall for a few days to show UVM administrators they mean business. This year's bloody shirt? Livable wages.

But two indignant student activists contend that the administration chilled their rights to free speech by dragging out the tent-permitting process over the course of two months. The rabble-rousers also allege that the administration has been secretly watering down its free-speech policies. Representatives from the student and faculty senates counter that the activists' instincts are admirable, but their claims are overblown.

The Student Labor Action Project, or SLAP, has been lobbying UVM higher-ups to pay all university employees a "livable wage" - enough to meet a family's basic needs - since 2005. On April 9, SLAP erected a tent city at Royall Tyler Theater plaza as yet another strategic pressure tactic. But SLAP organizer Max Tracy, 20, says the site wasn't their first choice. SLAP had asked permission to camp out on Morrill Hall green seven weeks earlier. And SLAP's original request for a 12-day permit was reduced to a one-night stand.

A flurry of bureaucratic back and forth followed. UVM's Student Government Association (SGA) Senate and a coalition of sympathetic Dems and Progs from the Vermont House drafted resolutions supporting an extension. Director of Student Life Pat Brown extended the permit until April 14. On April 16, the group appealed the decision to Assistant Vice President of Campus and Student Life Annie Stevens. Stevens responded three days later that she considered their appeal "moot" because their permit had already been extended. SLAP organizers were later granted a separate permit request for their hunger strike, which they conducted from April 23 to 27. (The students ultimately concluded the university was adequately addressing the livable-wage issue on campus.)

Brown and Stevens did not return phone calls for this story.

According to a 21-year-old SLAP representative, who requested to be identified only as the co-president of Students for Peace and Global Justice, SLAP was forced to meet with UVM administrators on nine separate occasions - what the student calls a "ridiculous number of times" - to obtain tent-city and hunger-strike permits. Tracy adds, "Free speech ought to outweigh any potential damage to the grass."

And that's exactly where the SLAP students get it wrong, argues newly appointed SGA president Kesha Ram. "The most important thing to students is graduation," says Ram. "People want a nice lawn to sit on." She claims that the Department of Student Life "bent over backwards" for SLAP during the permitting processes. "Sometimes [student] groups can vilify administrators," she suggests, emphasizing that it can be difficult for students to see administrative policies from a "macro level."

Beginning in February, Ram and other SGA senators were provided with copies of proposed revisions to two university policies: "Freedom of Expression of Dissent" and "Facilities and Grounds Use." If UVM's Board of Trustees approves the changes over the weekend of May 18, the section on "symbolic structures," which includes "tents" and "shanties," would be moved from the "Dissent" to the "Facilities" policy. In addition, the "Dissent" policy's existing section on "disruptions" would be expanded. The new documents would also remove jurisdiction over the "Dissent" policy from Provost John Hughes to President Daniel Fogel.

Tracy and his fellow SLAP activist express concern about both the nature of the changes and the process by which the revisions have been conducted, which Tracy characterizes as "underhanded." Both men worry, for example, that moving the "symbolic structures" provisions from "Dissent" to "Facilities" would stifle students' rights to free speech. Tracy also suggests, "You shouldn't have to apply to the person you're trying to protest [Fogel], to protest." He notes of this semester's policy-revision process, "We get the sense that there's a lot of background dealing - and I'm really uncomfortable with that."

Psychology Professor Justin Joffe, who chairs the Faculty Senate, supports the administration's changes. He asserts that policies regarding symbolic structures are only "tangentially related to freedom of dissent." Moreover, he says, giving the president jurisdiction over the "Dissent" policy makes it "clear where the responsibility lies." According to Joffe, a "balance" between different groups' "rights to freedom of expression" needs to be maintained. "The proof of the [revised policy] will be in its implementation in the event of a confrontation," he speculates.

"An institution has the right to limit free speech in terms of time, place and manner," insists student body president Ram. "Not everyone's allowed to do everything they want." Ram, 20, admits she doesn't know who drafted the policy changes, but she says she plans to bring up her concerns over the proposed changes at a May 3 meeting with the student body. She worries that if the changes were to pass in their current form, the traditional 30-day camp-out limit for tent cities and other symbolic structures would be restricted to three days. She also raises questions about proposed alterations to the tent-permit appeal process.

In the end, Ram believes "the aim of [the policies] is well meaning" in spite of their bureaucratic complexities. "Policies are policies," she observes. "They're not very easy to read."