Protest is part of a democratic society

Lev D. Zilbermints

I have heard via Facebook of the unfair treatment that Students for a Democratic Society has been receiving for its alleged interruption of the convocation speech of University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks. According to the accounts I have read, SDS members dropped banners including slogans critical of certain policies at your school. Let me point out that protest is a guaranteed right according to the First Amendment. Did these students beat someone up and tar and feather with Halloween masks? No, but they did protest, which is allowed under the U.S. Constitution. Here in New Jersey âÄî where I reside âÄî Rutgers University President Richard McCormick had students protesting tuition increases back in 2002. The students unfurled banners during a Board of Governors meeting. The students were left alone in peace. Apparently our university president can take student protests while he speaks. Your president seems above tolerating protest and free expression. Your president makes $700,000 while ours makes something like $600,000. I know he started out with $545,000 back in 2002. I would urge those overseeing the discipline to drop the knee-jerk reaction and give SDS a fair hearing in all aspects of this case. It is easy to assume these students are guilty and just forget the whole thing. But being a good leader and administrator means being able to put up with criticism. We humans are not saints; we are mortal and make mistakes. So it stands to reason that there will always be people who disagree with you on any given issue. That is human nature. If I were the president of a university, what would I do? Sure, I would be annoyed at being interrupted or criticized during my speech. So what? I would later call the critics to a meeting to hear their concerns and grievances. That is what happened here at Rutgers in February 1969 when President Mason Gross was faced with the takeover of our Conklin Hall by black students. Against tremendous pressure, Gross decided to talk to the students. What happened was the strengthening of the diverse campus we have now. The students were not prosecuted, but listened to. At the University of Minnesota, administrators seem to think that diplomacy does not work. But a good diplomat knows how to attract more supporters with honey than with vinegar. And right now, your reaction to student protest is not the diplomatic one. Suspend a student organization for protesting? WhatâÄôs next? If SDS had done something harmful, like vandalize Coffman Union or start a physical fight, I might understand the retribution. At the New Jersey Institute of Technology an organization was recently de-recognized because some of its members raped a woman. Worse, that fraternity had drugs and alcohol during a party this past August. So yes, in a case like that, the outright suspension or banning of an organization appears legitimate. But SDS, which exhibited the all too uncommon urge toward activism, merely unfurled some banners with slogans protesting University policy. Come on, University administration. To suspend a student organization because it protested administrative decisions is draconian. One needs to understand that protesting peacefully is the right of every American citizen. SDS should not be banned on campus just because administration doesnâÄôt like its criticism, nor should SDS members be prosecuted individually. Administration, remember your own student days. What were things like in the 1960s, âÄô70s or âÄô80s? Does it bring back memories of a time when you were in todayâÄôs studentsâÄô shoes? I urge the administration of the University to sit down at a round table with SDS leaders to address the issues they have raised, however threatening they may appear. Banning an organization for protesting is not the answer. Such an attitude can only lead to more conflict between the students and administration at the University. Lev D. Zilbermints Rutgers University and Students for a Democratic Society alumnus