Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Students' Rights

Today the Daily Cal published an op-ed by the author of the blog post we linked to here, which builds on and develops a number of the ideas in the original. For us, the key question here is the nature of "students' rights." Check it out:
On Thursday March 4, I went to Wheeler Hall to teach section for Legal Studies 140 "Property and Liberty" -- a subject about which we learned a lot more than we expected that day!

Students were protesting in front of and on the balcony of the building, and police were standing around, but nobody stopped me from going inside. Students in my section showed up and we started the discussion.

Twenty minutes later, two police officers came and told us "the chancellor is closing the building."

But by what right does the chancellor get to close Wheeler Hall?

This campus exists because the land was donated by the state legislature to the university in exchange for its providing education to the citizens of California.

So who owns the university? If the labor of teachers is part of the educational mission, at what point do teachers get to decide what happens on school property? If you believe, as I do, that student labor is also part of education -- helping to create what is learned by all in the classroom, what right do students have to make use of the spaces whose existence is justified by an educational mission? If there is disagreement or diversity of opinion, who or what should arbitrate these rights?

I later got an e-mail from the chancellor saying that a "health and safety issue" in Wheeler Hall required its closing.

Immediately afterwards, a friend who was outside Wheeler Hall told me about police pepper-spraying and beating protesters with batons while attempting to remove them from the area. Was that the health and safety issue?

In November 2009, a police officer smashed the hand of and nearly took off the finger of a student participating in the protests, while at the November 2010 Regents' meeting, police pepper-sprayed nonviolent students in the face. On March 4, police prevented people from bringing water to those protesters who were thirsty and had requested it. Police presence appears to be a leading cause of these "health and safety issues," and yet they are still allowed on campus.

Another issue raised during previous protests was concern over damage to the building. But is damaging human bodies preferable to damaging buildings? Also, has anyone seen the bathrooms in Wheeler Hall? If police were to start beating people over building damage, 20 percent of students there on a regular day would need ambulances. Hiring back the laid-off janitorial staff would be a better response to this concern and a better expenditure of university resources than paying the wages of police who beat students.

Whose rights are being protected by the beatings, the pepper-sprayings, the denial of water to protesters?

Let's consider students' rights to pursue an education without disruption. We were carrying on our section without a problem until closure of Wheeler Hall happened, it was the police who kicked us out.

What of the rights of the students who have dropped out because of fee hikes (many of whom are locked into crushing debt), or the janitors and other staff members who will no longer be on campus because of the policies like fee hikes and the layoffs like those dictated by Operational Excellence? Did they have any rights to pursue an education? The founders of the UC system would have said that they did.

How do we measure these rights alongside those of students, protesting or not, currently attending UC Berkeley? Non-protesting students' rights to pursue an education have already been affected: Despite massive fee increases, the resulting funds have not gone towards actual education: Class sizes are increasing, labs are cut, libraries are closed or have shorter hours, teaching resources are cut, class sessions are cut -- my own course has four fewer classes than usual because of the cuts! Meanwhile, endless construction projects disrupt the campus more than any protest has, to date.

We all learned a tremendous amount about the power and meaning of property rights on March 4. We saw how the campus put property rights in objects over people's property rights in their own bodies.

Students' rights to bodily integrity, to pursue an education and to have a voice in University of California policy were less important than the chancellor's right to absolute control over the goings-on inside Wheeler Hall. But what, besides force of arms, supports the chancellor's right? What about the UC's mission as an educational institution?

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