Seattle Community College District students and faculty voiced their opposition Tuesday to a proposal that would restrict student protests to certain times and locations.
Protests, political debate and exercising one’s First Amendment rights can be as educational as anything taught in the classroom, Seattle Community College faculty and students said during a lively hearing on a proposal that would change the rules on campus protests.
About 60 people jammed into a small room on the Seattle Central Community College campus Tuesday to argue against the proposal, which would restrict protests to specific areas of the three district campuses and to the hours of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Protest signs also could be no larger than 3 feet by 5 feet.
Seattle Central was home to Occupy Seattle for more than two months last fall, before the movement was evicted when the college outlawed camping on campus. But college officials said the new rules weren’t written to restrict Occupy protesters.
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Derek Edwards, an assistant attorney general with the state Attorney General’s Office who is advising the college, said the rules were drafted after several students complained about supporters of Lyndon LaRouche setting up a table in front of a college bookstore in November 2010. LaRouche is a perennial presidential candidate who has likened President Obama’s health-care law to the work of the Nazis.
As a result, Edwards said, the community-college district began trying to find a way to define free-speech zones within each of the three campuses — North Seattle Community College, Seattle Central Community College and South Seattle Community College.
“Our primary interest is our education mission — that we don’t have disruptive activity on campus,” said Carin Weiss, vice chancellor for the district. “We want to make it more clear where students and nonstudents can assemble.”
But at Tuesday’s hearing, no one spoke in favor of the rule changes.
Seattle Central student Najwa Alsheikh said her father came to the U.S. from Iraq before former President Saddam Hussein took power, and she was taught to value the importance of free speech.
“I’m alarmed something like this is even being considered,” said Alsheikh, who said the rules could become a slippery slope to greater restrictions on free speech.
English teacher Jeb Wyman said the proposal seemed to fit with a pattern of actions the college has taken to stifle speech, including no longer funding the college newspaper. He quoted from the language of the protest proposal, which said that the rules were being proposed “so the mission of the school is not infringed.”
“As if participation in the political process is not, quote-unquote, educational,” Wyman said.
Earlier, school officials had said they were using a model law developed by Wichita State University to regulate speech on campus. But the reference to regulations in the more conservative state brought guffaws from the audience, and Wyman questioned why “one of the most liberal cities in the country” would “look to Kansas as a model of political speech.”
Many speakers said they were concerned that community colleges are falling prey to the influence of corporations and turning away from their mission of providing a broad education and instead becoming training grounds for companies. To some, the Occupy movement was a force that could counter that trend. One speaker described the rules as “part of a larger effort to marginalize people who are fighting against the corporatization of America.”
Karen Strickland, president of the Seattle chapter of American Federation of Teachers, called for the college to convene a group of faculty, students and staff members to rewrite the rules to make them more supportive of First Amendment rights.
The college district will hold another public hearing on the rules April 5 at 3 p.m. in the first-floor boardroom at 1500 Harvard Ave. A summary of the public comments will be given to the district’s board of trustees, and they’ll discuss them during a regular board meeting April 12.
Edwards, the attorney, said several common themes emerged from the hearing that could suggest some possible changes.
“Everyone seemed concerned about the size of the signs,” Edwards said. “And the hours of protest seemed like a concern. That’s something the college could revisit.”
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.