11/27/2013 09:49 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

This Year Let's Give Thanks for On-Campus Dissent

Academic freedom, racial and gender equality, peace and collective bargaining rights -- these are just a few of the areas where student protests have played an important role in overcoming injustice. How many of our personal rights and freedoms have their roots in campus protest? How many of our children's will be? If the City University of New York (CUNY) has its way, we may never find out.

In a move likely to sharply curtail free speech, free assembly and dissent of any kind, administrators at CUNY are developing what they call a "Policy on Expressive Activity" to set severe limitations on who, how and where free speech and assembly rights can be exercised.

The proposed policy bans demonstrations from CUNY buildings and forces demonstrators into what amounts to "protest ghettos" conveniently called "designated areas," which are likely to be located in such "high traffic and visibility" areas as the space between defunct vending machines and moldy couches in a library sub-basement.

The proposed policy requires 24 hours of advance notice of any demonstration, even if turnout is expected to be minimal. Theoretically, this means that if a single student showed up with a protest sign without notifying the administration, he or she could be violating policy. What if the student showed up wearing a protest T-shirt, an anti-fracking patch on a backpack or a peace sign? The Policy on Expressive Activity is wide open to repressive interpretation.

The policy seeks to limit the distribution of what it calls "materials" (read: information) on campus, which, if it weren't so outrageous, would be almost absurdly humorous in its total antithesis to the whole concept of higher education as a forum for the open exchange of ideas. College presidents would also be given the power to determine if a demonstration is sufficiently "disruptive" to warrant calling the police onto campus to break it up. This is a job for campus safety, not college administration. Besides, demonstrations are supposed to be disruptive of the status quo. This policy suggests that if a demonstration is at all effective in its mission, college presidents can call in the NYPD to crush it regardless of the merit of the movement's aims. College presidents could shut down any movement they choose by invoking that right.

CUNY is a public university; therefore, these policies, if implemented, are not only an assault on the concept of university education but a restriction on the use of public space for assembly, which is protected under the First Amendment -- or at least it is supposed to be.

CUNY's proposed policy goes on to state, "Freedom of expression and assembly, are subject to the need to maintain safety and order." Of course, every university has the responsibility to maintain a safe environment for its students and employees. But as Barbara Bowen, President of the PSC/CUNY union of teachers and faculty, states in her memorandum to union members, "Safety is not the same as 'order'; safety does not require repression."

The university's proposed restrictions come on the heels of the abrupt and unannounced re-appropriation of a student center at CUNY's City College, where politically active students once had their offices. The space has been turned into a career center, and all student group files from that area were confiscated and never returned. CUNY students have also recently staged protests over what they considered unfair tuition hikes, as well as over the university's hiring of disgraced former General David Petraeus as a visiting professor.

The history behind CUNY is important to note. Once known as "Harvard for the Proletariat," CUNY was founded in 1847 as the direct result of disruption and dissent. Several of its colleges have been saved from closing during fiscal crises because of protest and assembly. CUNY is currently one of the largest urban universities in the United States as well as one of the most diverse, and although it's still affordable today, it used to be free. Its historic progressive mission was to offer the opportunity for upward mobility to high-achieving students who otherwise would not have been able to go to college due to economic or social constraints, such as a lack of family connections, being from a minority ethnic group or having female genitalia. CUNY successfully did just that. Among its impressive list of alumni who have contributed greatly to society is Jonas Salk. Do you like not having polio? Thank public education. Thank CUNY. And more specifically, thank dissent.

As institutions devoted not just to the transmission of knowledge but to the generation of new ideas, universities are inherently places of exploration, debate, dissent, and, sometimes, protest. Many CUNY students are from marginalized groups, have cause for protest, and are directly responsible for strides in progressivism. The preventative marginalization of dissent being considered by the university is a threat to all speech and all progress in social and economic justice and needs to be stopped.

If you think universities have a responsibility to uphold the highest standards for freedom of speech and assembly, please share this information widely and encourage the administration of CUNY to do all they can to preserve the university's vibrant intellectual community.