SDS Banned at Evergreen State
The suspension of Students for a Democratic Society at Evergreen State University in Washington raises serious questions of free speech. Here’s what happened. In February, a Dead Prez concert on campus led to a riot destroying a police car after the crowd objected to the arrest of a black man who helped break up a fight. President Purce announced a moratorium on concerts: “We aren’t having any more concerts until we can get our house in order. We have to ensure that we have the appropriate kinds of security and safety on campus and a revisiting of our policies as they relate to all aspects of approval of concerts, so that we can be assured that our house is safe.” SDS planned to hold an acoustic concert and a lecture in March. The administration banned them from holding the events. SDS felt this was an illicit order, and went ahead anyway. The administration suspended SDS.
Here’s the crux of the matter. A public university doesn’t have the authority to ban all concerts on campus. Clearly, an acoustic concert by David Rovics is not going to cause a riot. I’ve heard David Rovics play, and I enjoy his music a lot, but no one imagines that the audience at one of his shows constitutes a security risk. In fact, it often doesn’t even constitute a crowd. Plus, the university allowed other concerts to go ahead, indicating that it was selectively approving events, when it shouldn’t have had any power to approve events.
The cancellation of the lecture is even more bizarre; apparently, the administration did this because the lecture was publicized on the same flyer as the concert.
Fundamentally, the moratorium on campus was far too broad to meet constitutional rigor. Administrators have the power to cancel events for security reasons in extraordinary circumstances, but they can’t decree a moratorium, ever. And because that order was illegitimate, SDS was perfectly right to ignore it, and the suspension of SDS is directly tied to the unconstitutional moratorium.