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As protests consume college campuses, where's the line between safety, free speech?


As we've just heard, a lot of focus is on student protests in New York City, where protests at Columbia and New York University have resulted in arrests and drawn the attention of officials from the mayor of New York to President Biden to House Speaker Mike Johnson. But similar protests, including encampments and calls for divestment, have been sprouting up across the country. Last month, a group of students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., were arrested, suspended, and some were actually expelled after a protest that administrators said crossed a line. Daniel Diermeier is the chancellor of Vanderbilt, and we called him to hear more about how he and other university leaders are thinking about and responding to this moment. Good morning, Chancellor.


MARTIN: I just want to mention that you wrote about this in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, so people can read that for more in your thinking. But just so we can hear from you, what was behind the decision to have students arrested? I understand that there were about 27 involved in a sit in to the administration building, two left early on their own, 25 were escorted out, three were arrested. So what was the decision behind calling for arrests?

DIERMEIER: Yeah. Sure. So we have, since October 7, had lots of expressions by the students that, you know, made their voices heard. We had vigils. We had displays of, like, the families killed in Gaza and the hostages. We had protests. And then, you know, just last Monday, for example, we had a Passover celebration with 400 members of our community on the main lawn. So most of the - for most of the time, things were great and students were expressing their opinion and engaging in civil discourse.

We then had a small group of students that made it clear that they were not interested in discourse and that they wanted to force the university to boycott and divest from Israel. A month ago, they forced their way into a building. It's the main administrative building on campus, which was closed to the public because we're still doing minor construction there. They ran over a security guard. The security guard was injured, had to seek medical attention in the hospital. He was out for two weeks. He's back on duty.

They then ran upstairs where my office is, tried to force their way into the office, pushed staff around. They were then restrained from entering my office and they're set in the lobby, you know, shouting profanities to our staff for about 20 hours. At 5:00 a.m., the three students that had ran over the security guard were charged - were arrested. They had been charged by the magistrate with assault before. Another student had smashed a window. So that was for...

MARTIN: So the line that was crossed I want to get to some of the broader...

DIERMEIER: Yeah. Sure.

MARTIN: So what you're telling me is the line that was crossed was what? You feel injuring someone and destroying property. Is that the line?

DIERMEIER: Yeah. One hundred percent.


DIERMEIER: I mean, we have - whenever you have protests, universities will define the time, manner and way in which it's done. So for example, you're not allowed to disrupt classes, and you're not - you know, injuring a security guard and forcing your way into a closed building is not an expression of free speech.

MARTIN: So the argument at some of the universities seems to revolve around the question of safety because none of that happened at some of these other institutions that we're talking about. It seems to revolve around safety and that whether these demonstrations themselves create a - sort of an unwelcoming environment for Jewish students, and that is in contrast to this whole question around free speech. You don't...


MARTIN: ...Say that that's the issue at Vanderbilt. You don't...

DIERMEIER: No. There was...

MARTIN: ...Think that's the issue there?

DIERMEIER: No. That was not the issue at Vanderbilt. The issue at Vanderbilt was the way I described it. And we were - there is - this is - to me, it really is not a free speech issue because you are - if you're forcing your way into a closed building, you're engaging in vandalism, and that's all - that's not an expression of free speech.

MARTIN: The other issue here does around - and this - the whole issue of the boycott, investment issue that BDS moving is such a big issue we don't have time to resolve here.


MARTIN: But one of the issues that the students say is that they wanted to advance this in a student-led kind of referendum and that this was removed.


MARTIN: This option to even vote on it was removed from them, and they would argue that this is a nonviolent protest, whether people agree or disagree. But, boy, if corporate spending is speech, then withholding corporate spending is also speech and that this is something that should have been debated. How do you respond to that?

DIERMEIER: Yeah. So two aspects to that. So the first thing is is that we have a commitment at the university to institutional neutrality. So our three commitments are free speech, or we call it open form, institutional neutrality, which means that the university will not take policy positions unless they directly affect the operating of the university. So we don't take a position on foreign policy, and a commitment to civil discourse. Now, calling for BDS, for a boycott of Israel, is inconsistent with institutional neutrality. So from our values point, we're not going to go there.

Then there's a separate issue, is that the state of Tennessee has a law prohibiting BDS activities. It's a very strict law, and if it is - if we are not compliant with that, we will lose research funding from the state. So our analysis made very clear that even the vote by the students would violate the law because the law does not distinguish - that does not consider our student government as an independent entity. They're in the weeds...

MARTIN: But can they talk about it?

DIERMEIER: ...But that's it.

MARTIN: They can talk about it. But they can talk about it.

DIERMEIER: They can talk about it. Absolutely.

MARTIN: They can talk about it, but your argument is they can't take an official action that would take this position.

DIERMEIER: Exactly. Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. So in the time that we have left, and, again, this is a very complex topic that deserves sort of more time, you know, University demonstrations have been central to history making movements in the United States. I mean, the movement to desegregate public spaces started with, you know, freshman at North Carolina A&T, the Civil Rights Movement, efforts to abolish apartheid, many of these have been centered in universities. Are there some lessons that you think colleges and universities should take from the past that are relevant to the current moment, or do you think this moment stands alone for some reason?

DIERMEIER: No, I don't think it stands alone. I think it's part of that. Number one - I think lesson number one is to be very clear about what the guidelines are and to encourage students to express themselves, but in a matter that doesn't include safety concerns or violate the operations, it makes it impossible for the university to operate. So that's piece one. Second piece, I think what we've seen it as very - it is a very wise commitment of universities to institutional neutrality so that they're not being dragged into these conflicts that are passionate, but where universities overall mission is to provide a forum for debate and not take an official position that attempts to settle it.

DIERMEIER: There are only a few universities that have really made that commitment. We're one of them. We already made it in the '60s and '70s. University of Chicago, where I worked before us another one. My sense is that it's a very, very good idea for universities to be clear that they will not have these policy positions so that they're not constantly part of this political battle, and we resisted the attempt to be polarized and politicized.

MARTIN: But for those who argue that the BDS whole question of outlawing that is itself sort of a restriction of speech, which should not be permitted - I mean, obviously, we're not going to resolve that here. You're saying that's the law in Tennessee, but for the sake of argument, if it were not?

DIERMEIER: If it were not, then they could - then they can vote on it, you know, then...

MARTIN: Talk about it.

DIERMEIER: ...Has to look through what the things are, but it's...


DIERMEIER: ...Inconsistent with our values anyway.

MARTIN: That is Daniel Diermeier. He is the chancellor at Vanderbilt University. Chancellor Diermeier, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DIERMEIER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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