Letter: UMass Amherst: a stifled beacon of democracy

When free speech is restricted

%28Caroline+O%27Connor%2FDaily+Collegian%29
Back to Article
Back to Article

Letter: UMass Amherst: a stifled beacon of democracy

(Caroline O'Connor/Daily Collegian)

(Caroline O'Connor/Daily Collegian)

(Caroline O'Connor/Daily Collegian)

(Caroline O'Connor/Daily Collegian)

By Opinion & Editorial Staff

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






To the editor,

            Democracy is not defined by elections; it is defined by its citizens. We the people of a democracy must not be subjects, listlessly governed by the powers that be, but instead, citizens actively advocating for the change we wish to see and holding our leaders accountable.

For decades, the University of Massachusetts was a beacon of such vibrant democracy. In 1968, student occupation of the former Mills House, which is now the New Africa House, yielded the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies; student protests in the wake of the bombing of Cambodia in 1970 unleashed a torrent of student protests across the nation. In 1985, student protests prompted the University to divest from apartheid South Africa; in 1997, students gathered to demand the University commit to honoring diversity; in 2007, students went on strike over tuition and fee increases.

Though campus activism continues today, best exemplified by the 2016 sit-ins of Whitmore that forced the University to commit to divest from fossil fuels, the University’s current land use policy regarding free speech stifles the passionate activism that makes UMass a bulwark of democracy.

For the last three years, student leaders and organizers in the Student Government Association and Center for Education Policy & Advocacy have been working to address the University’s free speech policy. Students argue this policy is unconstitutional, yet the University steadfastly insists its policies are in accord with all laws, as always.

The SGA and CEPA sought a democratic resolution to this issue by working with the administration to craft a free speech policy that protects and upholds, rather than restricts, free speech. CEPA has been working with the Attorney General of the SGA to update this policy. Given that Chancellor Subbaswamy has acknowledged that protests and demonstrations are “a point of pride” for this campus, we extend an offer to work with the Chancellor and the administration on a new, more open free speech policy for this campus—one that reflects the needs of the community with respect to student power.

We must remember the rhetoric of political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, who describes nascent American democracy as an exceptional form of government which creates citizens rather than subjects. Should people be turned into subjects, willing to oblige their leaders no matter the circumstance, then it matters not that there are elections; it matters not that no one bears the title of monarch or dictator, because democracy is nonetheless dead. Moreover, Tocqueville contends that it is the right of citizens to form associations with each other that prevent tyranny from overtaking democracy. There are few associations as powerful as those formed during student demonstrations; such associations remind people that they are stronger together, and that the relations of power are always malleable. Our current free speech policy impedes such freedom of association.

We should remember Tocqueville as we work with our partners in the SGA to ensure the University adopts a free speech policy that includes an affirmation of students’ First Amendment rights and recognizes the critical role of organizing and activism both in our democracy as a whole and our campus community. We are citizens, not subjects—our free speech policy should reflect as much.

James Cordero is the External Communication Coordinator for CEPA