University of California students studying abroad can now participate in protests and demonstrations in foreign counties without fear of academic reprimand.
Last Wednesday, the UC changed its policy — which barred students in the Education Abroad Program from joining protests in foreign countries — after a UC Irvine student, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed a complaint and threatened legal action. Kathlyn Henderson, a third-year English major at UC Irvine who is currently participating in the in the yearlong Full Immersion Program in France said the policy hindered her right to free speech. The revised policy now only prohibits students from participating in illegal protests and demonstrations.
“I don’t believe the University of California has the right to censor its students,” Henderson said.
The University’s EAP spokesman Bruce Hanna said the policy was never intentioned to suppress students’ right to free speech.
“There are about 4,500 students who participate [in EAP every year],” Hanna said. “Our main concern was safety.”
Hanna said students were previously barred from protests because of the potential for demonstrations to become violent, howeve, he said he was unsure if any EAP participant has ever been injured. Although the UC has changed the policy’s wording, Hanna still cautioned students about joining protests in other countries.
“A policy that is legal in the U.S. may not be so in another country,” he said.
But Henderson said she has heard many students studying abroad say that they still participate in protests, but hide their activities from EAP administrators.
“I don’t think anyone should have to be secretive about their political activity, whether at home or abroad,” Henderson said,
Some students like Edris Rodriguez, a third-year political science and language studies major at UC Santa Cruz, said he either protested without the host university’s knowledge or found loopholes to the previous UC policy. Rodriguez said he went to a protest last year while studying in Paris.
“I went as a witness, not a participant,” Rodriguez said. “Witnessing isn’t the same as participating.”
At the rally, Rodriquez said the crowd grew violent when protesters against the National Front – a French nationalist political party – and members of the party began to fight with each other, resulting in a riot.
“I saw them beat up people two feet away from me,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez said he didn’t inform the UC Center in Paris of his experience because he feared reprimand from administrators.
Henderson sent an e-mail last September to the ACLU that put her into contact with two of its representatives, Peter Eliasberg and Ahilan Arulanantham. After researching the issue, Eliasberg and Arulanantham contacted the UC.
“The process was very simple,” Henderson said. “The ACLU wrote a letter on my behalf, which threatened legal action if the university did not change its EAP policy. The letter was sent in January, and I believe the university sent a response within two weeks. It was resolved very quickly.”
Elizabeth Brennan, ACLU of Southern California spokeswoman, said the University was cooperative after reading the letter.
Back in France, Henderson said she has received a lot of commendation for her success in the changing of the university policy.
“The study center director even congratulated me. My parents are relieved I won’t be in some sort of legal battle,” she said.