Students Toward A New Democracy (S.T.A.N.D.) is claiming that the University of Miami is censoring its freedom of expression.
This year, S.T.A.N.D. has criticized the university’s policies at the Life Science and Technology Park opening in Overtown. S.T.A.N.D. has been promoting its mission and efforts year-round but an incident March 8 caught the attention of the Dean of Students Office.
That night after the organization’s weekly meeting, members of the organization, along with other Overtown supporters, drew chalk messages like “STAND with Overtown” on sidewalks across campus.
“S.T.A.N.D. had seen other student organizations use chalk on campus and thought it was a great way to write positive messages and visually show the faculty and students our support of Overtown,” said senior Stephanie Sandhu, a member of S.T.A.N.D.
The chalking was a part of S.T.A.N.D.’s campaign advocating the development of a sustainable community benefits agreement between the university and the impoverished Overtown community.
Among other requests, S.T.A.N.D. has asked UM to fulfill its promise of delivering economic benefits and jobs for Overtown residents because of the funding behind the life science park. The project is partially funded by location-specific bonds, which are part of a federal program that allocates funds to areas that have significant poverty and unemployment as defined by the county.
The university said it has been doing everything possible to provide jobs to Overtown residents. S.T.A.N.D, however, believes these efforts fall short.
Sandhu and sophomore Antoine Romulus, both members of S.T.A.N.D., were called in to the Dean of Students Office in April.
At these meetings, the students were informed that S.T.A.N.D. was being charged with vandalism due to its chalk creations.
“It’s not about sidewalk chalk, it is about vandalism to the university,” said Dr. Ricardo Hall, dean of students. “It’s not about advertising and not about taking one position or another for any cause. Our office has no interest in that.”
According to Hall, S.T.A.N.D.’s chalking was reported, a necessary action for his office to begin investigation.
While S.T.A.N.D. used ordinary sidewalk chalk, an Overtown supporter used spray chalk for five messages.
“Facilities acted on it with a naked eye as if it was spray paint,” Hall said.
UMPD filed a vandalism report against S.T.A.N.D. citing almost $400 in reparation expenses for products to clean what they assumed was spray paint.
S.T.A.N.D. identifies these disciplinary actions as evidence of an infringement of free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has joined with S.T.A.N.D. to investigate the allegations against the university.
“In fairness to the university we are collecting information to determine if in fact the university is selectively enforcing its code of conduct,” said UM alumnus John de Leon, president of the Greater Miami chapter of the ACLU. “If the university treats individuals and groups differently then they are participating in discipline based on message or association.”
In its Censorship Report, a document chronicling its grievances against the university, S.T.A.N.D. defends its chalking by comparing it to other student organizations’ chalk advertisements on campus like Golden Key International Honour Society.
In response to the administration, S.T.A.N.D. hosted an event Tuesday afternoon on the Rock promoting free speech on campus. Members brought chalk boards and attendees of the rally were able to freely chalk. Students sprawled messages on the boards like “Free speech is sexy” and “Overtown has a voice.”
But some students believe that, by being a registered student organization, S.T.A.N.D. should comply with all campus policies and procedures.
“While obviously I agree that free speech is vital, people sometimes seem to forget that with rights come responsibilities,” junior Ryan Aquilina said. “The fact that any sort of free speech demonstration was able to happen proves that UM isn’t against free speech.”
Still, Sandhu noted the university may have censored the event on Tuesday: the Rock was double-booked and S.T.A.N.D. was only notified Monday; also, UMPD was asked to stand by during the rally.
“My classmates were scared to come,” Sandhu said. “What kind of academic environment do we live in if students are scared to support freedom of speech?”
According to Hall, however, the administration is not hindering free speech.
“There is a way to achieve your end goal and even prove a point without alienating people and without being disrespectful to members of the community, and hopefully S.T.A.N.D. will be able to strike that balance,” Hall said.
In fact, Hall wants the entire campus to be a free speech zone, a term used in the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook.
“Freedom of speech, in my estimation, doesn’t include things like property damage,” he said. “As long as you’re respectful, people would agree this is a place where different thought and different expressions are celebrated.”
Sandhu and S.T.A.N.D. hope that the student support at the rally Tuesday afternoon has led the dean’s office to realize the “unfairness” of the charges.
The investigation of S.T.A.N.D.’s alleged vandalism will be finalized in an upcoming hearing during which a decision about restitution will be made by the Dean of Students Office. The Dean of Students Office is not considering disbanding S.T.A.N.D.
Alexa Lopez may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.