Chancellor outlines views on public protests

To the UNL community:

I have received a letter signed by a long list of faculty, students and alumni asking for my views on the right of members of our community to engage in public protest free of “repressive” force. Obviously, their concern is prompted by events at the University of California, Davis and other venues. I accept the request in the spirit in which it was made — that while there are no reasons to believe that this university would act irresponsibly, some reassurance would be appropriate.

Let me first say that personally I was appalled at the video regarding the use of pepper spray on apparently unresisting protestors. One never knows whether there was a context not captured on the videos that could explain or even justify the police conduct in that case, but it is hard to imagine what that could have been.

As chancellor I have two responsibilities in such circumstances. One cannot have a great university without the ability of members of its community to publicly express their views and to engage in public dialogue on any issue. The drafters of the U.S. Constitution recognized that the right to peacefully assemble was part of the ongoing conversations that should characterize a democracy. This is particularly true at a university where our primary function is to create a robust exploration of issues and to promote the expression of conflicting points of view. Indeed, peaceful protest and demonstrations are a traditional part of the American experience that must be protected and preserved. This is part of my responsibility.

My other responsibility, in accordance with the by-laws of the Board of Regents, is to assure that normal university activities are not disrupted. The determination of when a protest becomes disruptive is not always an easy judgment and, again, at a university where exploration of ideas is our reason for existence, one should not jump to a conclusion of disruption because a few are inconvenienced and certainly not because some are offended by the views expressed. However, if a protest is conducted at an inappropriate place or in a way that seriously infringes on the rights of others to conduct their normal university activities or represents a threat of violence or injury, I would have no alternative but to act. I would do so with full assurance that our campus police force and the university administrators who oversee and collaborate with them are experienced professionals who conduct themselves thoughtfully in difficult situations.

I am confident that members of this community will act responsibly and that an occasion for responding to a disruptive event will not arise. However, you are certainly entitled to know the principles that would govern my action. I believe that ultimately universities thrive because there is a basic trust between faculty and students and administration. If required to act, I would hope that it would be viewed by most as consistent with that trust — that it would be restrained and responsible, that it would be with the least force necessary to avoid the disruption, and that it would be firm on behalf of those whose rights were infringed and yet respectful of the rights and safety of all involved.

I hope everyone knows that I am committed to making UNL a place of peace and safety where dialogue and dissent are honored. I would expect the same of every member of our campus community.

— Harvey Perlman, Chancellor