Opinion: Hiding in plain sight — how administration obfuscates its intent 

UTD Administration restricts student freedom by using vague prescriptive statements

Rainier Pederson | Mercury Staff

UTD administration had 21 students, staff, alumni and community members arrested, but not once has the administration pointed to a specific part of UTD or UT System policy that the arrested individuals violated. Administration has fundamentally failed to listen to its students and has instead established a grossly restrictive and prescriptive policy.  

The UTD Office of Communications and Office of the President have rebuffed every attempt The Mercury has made to contact them. Instead of properly addressing their students, President Richard Benson has written an op-ed for The Dallas Morning News, where he justifies the violent arrests and detainments conducted by UTDPD and four other law enforcement agencies by saying that “[UTD is] protecting the right of free speech and the safety of our community.” Three professors stood between the encroaching police and the students in the encampment, and all three professors found themselves behind the cell bars of the Collin County Jail because they dared to stand up for UTD students’ safety and right to protest, while no member of the campus administration made an attempt to de-escalate the situation. While students and faculty were shackled on campus, UTD President Richard Benson chose to ignore the encampment and visit billionaire Harlan Crow, an esteemed benefactor of Justice Clarence Thomas and a casual collector of Nazi memorabilia. 

Rafael Martín, UTD vice president and chief of staff, came to the encampment in person around 6 a.m. and told the demonstrators to leave, and administration issued a written notice to dismantle the encampment, which protest leaders read aloud around 3:45 p.m. — 15 minutes before the law enforcement raid began, hardly enough time for students to comply. Other than these two contacts, neither of which left official or accessible written records, administration did not successfully communicate with students. It is unacceptable how vague and unresponsive administrators have been during what is easily one of the most historically significant moments in campus history.  

The worst thing about the notice is its vague language, especially when defining what campus policy would warrant such an exaggerated show of force from law enforcement in response to peaceful students. The message from administration to protesters began with, “The setting up of an encampment including tents, barricades and other structures is not permitted under the university’s policy for speech, expression, and assembly, nor is it permitted under any other University of Texas at Dallas or UT System policy or rule.” The question students were asking themselves in the 15 minutes after this message was delivered and before police began arresting demonstrators and tearing down the encampment was: what does this notice even mean? The notice ends with a threat of arrest if the students do not leave, but the opening section begins by making vague allusions to a policy that says setting up an encampment “is not permitted.” 

There are two common ways to interpret the phrase “is not permitted”: firstly, that the policy explicitly says that something is not allowed; secondly, that the policy does not explicitly say that something is allowed. These two interpretations make the policy either restrictive or prescriptive. UTDSP 5001 serves as the campus policy on all matters of speech, expression and assembly; this is presumably what administration referred to in their notice, since it was the main policy point discussed by faculty during the May 10 Academic Senate meeting about the encampment’s legality. However, as of publication, neither Benson nor any other administrators have responded to The Mercury’s requests to confirm this information. At no point in the 12 sections of UTD’s policy is there a clause which prohibits creating encampments on campus. The encampment at Chess Plaza is a collection of tents, tables, wood and tires, all of which have previously been used when campus-affiliated fraternities and sororities hold fundraisers or Red Bull sets up an advertising display in the very same location. There are indeed rules against creating obstructions to pedestrians, but students were allowed to move through the encampment before the police raid. Those that did not want to enter it could travel a few feet north to the next accessible sidewalk crossing between the magnolia trees with a detour time around 30 seconds. The signs and slogans present at the encampment all fall under the protections in Section B: Subsection 6 — Harassment, which says that “to make an argument for or against the substance of any political, religious, philosophical, ideological, or academic idea is not harassment, even if some listeners are offended by the argument or idea.” The encampment undoubtedly falls under the category of a political argument; its entire purpose was to show solidarity with the people of Gaza and demand UTD divest from weapons manufacturers that contribute to the genocide of Palestinians. 

Twenty-one students, faculty, alumni and community members were arrested because they either tried to protect students from the violence of state law enforcement or because they were willing to sacrifice themselves for their political beliefs. UTD arrested them and disbanded the encampment without providing adequate reasoning. The issue with administration’s prescriptive form of policy interpretation lies in its vagueness: because the “Gaza Liberation Plaza” was not explicitly permitted within the policy, the demonstration is pushed into this policy gray area, which allows the Office of the President to disband any protests or events which it sees as inconvenient. The policy must distinguish between clear guidelines and prohibitions; it should not become a nebulous cudgel that beats students into submission. Campus administration must explicitly point out what specific sections of campus or UT System policy were violated and how those violations translate into requiring heavily-armed law enforcement officers violently disperse a group which Benson has admitted was weaponless and nonviolent. Unarmed students peacefully protesting for an end to genocide and war should never be met with such grotesque violence, yet UTD administration, like that of UT Austin has fallen prey to an insidious, rabid lust for violence against protesters. 

The Comet community must call for more transparency from campus administrators by creating petitions, emailing them and continuing to protest about what matters for them while also demanding that administrators release comprehensive details about who led the response against peaceful students, what specific rules they violated and why such extreme action was taken.  

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