The UC Riverside Task Force on Speech and Assembly had their first meeting last Friday following the release and subsequent removal of guidelines concerning student protest. The publication of the protest guidelines occurred in the aftermath of the highly controversial incidents that marred protests on the UC Davis and UC Berkeley campuses, where numerous students were injured by police. The guidelines, however, were promptly removed following backlash from university students, faculty and other concerned members of the community—many of whom resorted to an online petition that garnered nearly one thousand signatures.  UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy White, who is serving as the head of the task force, announced the removal of the protest guidelines in an email dated Dec. 14. “It is clear that the document does not accurately reflect UC Riverside’s demonstrated commitment to free expression and peaceful, non-violent protest.  We were in error to post guidelines that neither comport with our values nor reflect the realities of how the campus exercises the right to free speech,” stated Chancellor White in the email.

A major source of backlash was a clause in the protest guidelines which made it a violation to “hold a protest without planning and scheduling ahead with UCR,” thereby posing a prior restraint on public speech (a restriction which is subject to the highest tier of judicial scrutiny). “We fully understand that most protests and demonstrations are spontaneous, and are in response to current events. At UCR, we have a long history of accommodating such demonstrations…” stated Chancellor White, in reference to the aforementioned clause that would have banned most spontaneous demonstrations due to their lack of planning and advising with the university.  Additional guidelines included a ban on overnight events and the disruption of classes, meeting with members of the event review committee and contacting the assistant dean of students. Another source of confusion which went unaddressed in the campus-wide announcements dealt with whether the guidelines were mere suggestions to facilitate a protest and prevent the violation of laws, or whether the guidelines were backed by disciplinary action and stood independent from laws and other applicable regulations.

The task force that met on Friday, Jan. 6, was created by Chancellor White to review the abandoned guidelines.  “The review will be conducted by a task force consisting of students, faculty, and staff, who in turn will be asked to consult widely before making their recommendations. Our goal is to be certain that we fully support the right to free speech and peaceful assembly on campus,” stated Chancellor White in an email.  The functioning of the task force and the implementation of any new guidelines or changes was also elaborated in the email. “Subsequent to the review, the campus will post any proposed updates, changes, or clarifications to the guidelines to provide a brief period for public comment before finalizing the revisions,” concluded the chancellor. The list of the selected task force members was announced on Jan. 4. Members included professors, undergraduate and graduate students, UC Riverside Chief of Police Mike Lane, Provost Dallas Rabenstein and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Jim Sandoval.

An outspoken critic of both the initial protest guidelines and the subsequently created task force is UC Riverside graduate student Guanyang Zhang. Zhang, who sponsored the online petition against the protest guidelines, was among the individuals selected by the Chancellor to serve in the task force. The entomology graduate student, however, declined White’s invitation and denounced the method behind the selection of members. “I stand by my statement that the meeting and the ‘task force’ have to be democratic, transparent, and representative. The way that the ‘task force’ is formed by invitation from the university administration is no way a reflection of those principles. Four student representatives in a group of 20 is the result of a hegemony of the university administration and a failure to respect democracy and diversity,” stated Zhang in a mass email sent to Chancellor White and dozens of university administrators from every UC campus. Zhang also highlighted several other issues with White’s handling of the situation, including the fact that the meeting was not open to the public (non-members were directed to send their comments to the executive administrator specialist’s email), the guidelines failed to regulate police action, the initial guideline release was not officially announced to the campus and the invitation of the dean of UC Berkeley School of Law was not mentioned in the email stating the names of the members.

Zhang concluded his email with numerous questions directed at the chancellor along with some suggestions for the creation of an alternative task force. “Did [White] know the guidelines? If he did, why did he let the guidelines be drafted and released, given that he acknowledged later that it was not worthy to have the guidelines. If he did not know or was not involved, how could his administration release guidelines that would affect all students on campus without letting the Chancellor know?” questioned Zhang.

Zhang’s sentiment was shared by numerous student protesters who were allowed to enter the private task force meeting. “The task force needs to be stopped immediately and will not be acceptable. Our campus needs to look forward by creating a public democratic discussion with representations from students, faculty, professors, and workers to discuss the issue of free speech on campus. Do not write or revise these guidelines, they will not be accepted,” stated UC Riverside student Adriana Cruz in an interview with the Highlander. Cruz was among the group of nearly 20 protesters who convened at the meeting place of the task force and allowed to “join the discussion.”

Official announcements regarding any decisions made during the task force meeting are expected to occur in the near future.