BY SAMANTHA COSTANZO, DECLAN DUGGAN, DANIEL MUNDO, + KRISTINA REX
At a table tucked away in a corner of a busy Boston College dining hall, Erin Sutton lowers her voice as she talks about her school’s refusal to recognize a club that promotes the divestment of BC’s holdings in fossil fuel companies.
“I’m at the point right now where I’m getting so afraid, I may stop participating in the on-campus movement and focus on my off-campus work,” says Sutton, whose group, Climate Justice, was expressly forbidden (by university administrators) from posting fliers, scheduling events, soliciting funding, recruiting members, or holding meetings on campus.
“The grounds for getting in trouble have changed, and we don’t want to be in trouble,” says Sutton, who was threatened with disciplinary action for co-organizing a rally in December, and who fears a stain on her record as she pursues a PhD in physics. “It’s really frightening that they can do this.”
It’s well known beyond campus that BC is a Jesuit Catholic institution with a social justice mission. The school’s slogan is, “Men and women for others,” and students have a longstanding tradition of community involvement. This year, however, many Eagles have found themselves fighting what they view as harsh restrictions on expressing opinions related to issues ranging from fossil-fuel divestment to racial inequality and gay rights.
“There’s too many limits, too many loopholes to jump through,” says Dan DeLeon, a student who was threatened with disciplinary action after participating in a die-in on campus. He was there to protest the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who were both killed by police. School authorities cited DeLeon’s lack of the required paperwork to protest.
The limits appear to be tighter than in years past. Though Climate Justice BC was permitted to hold a rally calling for divestment in December, they were denied a subsequent request in February. When the group went ahead anyway, four members were given disciplinary sanctions. Two are appealing the decision.
According to Thomas Mogan, dean of students, the university was concerned about safety on the day of the wintertime prayer rally. At the time, trucks were hauling snow away from massive banks, and people in the area had been injured by plows. Letting an unregistered student group hold an event, Mogan says, opens up the university to liability.
As for the aforementioned die-in, Mogan says the action interfered with campus workers who were moving some of the resident Jesuit priests who live at BC back into their newly renovated building. Nevertheless, students blame financial and political reasons, not tall snow banks or moving trucks, for the clampdowns.
“We’re not asking the university to take a stance [on issues like gay marriage],” says Martin Casiano, vice president of diversity and inclusion for the Undergraduate Government of Boston College. “We’re asking that they support and validate LGBTQ students here rather than just remaining silent.”
Other minority groups also feel unfairly muted. The die-in over Ferguson and Staten Island “was part of showing the outrage a lot of students were feeling,” says DeLeon—“feeling like, well I’m at a predominantly white institution and the fact that black kids are being killed and my university … doesn’t even want to address the issue.”
The tension on campus bubbled over earlier this year when students from other area universities and colleges, including MIT and Brandeis, held a rally at BC in support of free speech and fossil-fuel divestment. “The crazy part of this at BC is the news that students are getting in trouble for talking about this stuff,” environmentalist Bill McKibben, who attended the protest, told the BC student newspaper, the Heights.
BC’s rules for what students can say, and how, are complex. For starters, even Mogan says the event-permitting policy is “ambiguous.” Students aren’t supposed to distribute leaflets or hold signs without permission from the Office of Student Involvement. Likewise, as per the university’s Student Organization Manual, they’re not allowed to assemble without approval from the dean of students. Under these rules, large events have to be proposed 45 days in advance, while protests must be announced 48 hours ahead of time. All this while administrators can shut events down, dissolve campus organizations, and limit what outside speakers can say, including phrases such as “gay marriage.”
The manual also bans groups whose positions “are not consistent with the mission of Boston College.” For that apparent reason, the fossil-fuel divestment group has been rejected at least six times in its efforts to become a registered student organization. Meanwhile, the university has said that it will not, in fact, divest. On another front, while graduate students were recently able to invite a gay rights advocate to speak at BC, Casiano says that undergraduates were denied that freedom.
“Whether we are a Catholic, Jesuit university or not, our LGBTQ people are people, and they are students here who deserve to be respected and celebrated and made to feel like they are a part of this community,” Casiano says. He adds, “I don’t understand how anything I just said is not in line with Jesuit, Catholic ideals.”
Gus Burkett, director of the Office of Student Involvement, responds: “Nothing is necessarily black and white, but you can’t go exactly against Catholic teachings.” Nonetheless, some other Catholic universities are less restrictive. Notre Dame also bans activities that contradict Catholic teachings, but has a “Gender Relations Center” for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students. Georgetown calls free speech “central to the life of the university.”
The student government appears to be on the case. Tensions rose high enough last year for the student government to issue a report suggesting reforms, including the establishment of a committee on free expression, the right to post fliers and hang banners without censorship, and the designation of specific areas for demonstrations without prior approval.
Some students who have clashed with BC’s administration say things are slowly improving. “Every year since I’ve been here,” says Casiano, “our relationship with the administration has gotten a little bit better.” Sutton says the fossil-fuel group is moving closer to getting formal recognition as a registered student organization. “They’ve been very responsive to us right now,” she says. “It’s not all bad. People do work with us.”
Of course, more help is always appreciated. Campus activists say their ongoing crusade aligns with BC ideals, and that members of the faculty should join them next time they cross paths during a protest.
“The Jesuits,” DeLeon says, “should have been laying down with us.”
This story was produced by students in the Advanced Journalism course at Boston College.