Last Tuesday evening, I went to Old Main to take pictures of the protestors who had gathered to demand that Penn State approve the Designated Suppliers Program (DSP). I waited behind the building with other members of the student press, wondering how the situation would pan out.
While I waited, I made conversation with a middle-aged woman named PJ Mollica. When I asked her why she was there, her answer was somewhat unusual.
"I'm waiting for my son to be arrested," she said.
I never thought a mother speaking such a sentence could sound so proud.
Mollica's son, David, was one of the 31 students who refused to leave Old Main until Graham Spanier adopted the DSP or had them forcibly removed. Beginning at 5:30 p.m., they were served with citations and removed one at a time by a contingent of university and State College police.
The protesters were told that they couldn't remain inside the building all night because of the next day's open house event. While this excuse seemed like a pretty sketchy way to end the demonstration, at least the officials came up with something.
The next day when protesters showed up to distribute leaflets on Old Main lawn during the open house, the administration apparently didn't have enough time to come up with a legitimate reason to get rid of them: They just wanted them gone. Unfortunately, they got their way.
Members of University Police and representatives of the Alumni Association couldn't cite any policy that the demonstrators were violating -- they just insisted that the students leave.
I was curious to see if there was anything in the University Policy Manual that might justify shutting down a peaceful demonstration in a public outdoor area like the Old Main lawn. There is no rule against non-violent, non-disruptive distribution of fliers, even if that activity takes place in a place and time that the administration might deem bad for public relations.
The first line of the university policy regarding "use of outdoor areas for expressive activities" states that "a university is inherently a marketplace of ideas, and Penn State encourages and protects the rights of members of the University community to express divergent viewpoints and opinions on matters of concern." The policy then stipulates that demonstrators must spread their message with civility and regard for safety and asks that they not disrupt classes.
I fail to see how the distribution of fliers outdoors could have disrupted tours to the Old Main bell tower. Perhaps their presence on the lawn below created an unpleasant view from above for conflict-shy administrators.
Regardless of which side of the debate you might be on, these students were simply exercising their first amendment rights. I'm happy to see that such a tradition is still alive at a university where student protesters in the past have spoken out publicly about the war in Vietnam, civil rights and other important issues.
With Penn State's history and reputation in mind, members of the university administration and the alumni association should be proud to show visitors to our campus that members of the student body have both the presence of mind and the inalienable right to speak out about the issues they care about.