Members of the student organization Social Justice Network sent a letter to top Yale administrators on Sunday night asking the University to create areas on campus where students will be allowed to protest during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Yale later this month.
The SJN letter — which was sent via e-mail to Yale President Richard Levin, Provost Andrew Hamilton and Yale Police Chief James Perrotti — requested that students be allowed to demonstrate on College Street across from Sprague Hall, where Hu is scheduled to speak on April 21. Yale Police Department Lt. Michael Patten said last week that educational displays will be permitted on Cross Campus, but all protestors will be restricted to the New Haven Green where they will be monitored by the New Haven Police Department.
“We think that this decision represents an unconscionable attempt to effectively silence the voices of those who oppose policies of the People’s Republic of China,” the SJN letter stated. “As Hu’s voice will be heard on campus, so should the voices of those who oppose the policies of his regime.”
Levin and other administrators could not be reached for comment on Sunday night.
But Chinese American Students Association president Aaron Meng ’08 said he thinks Yale’s decision to bar protestors from setting up across from Sprague Hall is reasonable, given the security threat of bringing Hu to campus and what is likely to be heavy traffic that day.
“It’s a logical security measure to make sure there aren’t too many protestors at the speech,” Meng said. “Plus, there will be a lot of traffic issues. I feel like the New Haven Green is not a really secluded area, so the protestors will still be able to have … spectators see what their message is about.”
Chris Rhie ’07, who helped draft the SJN letter, said he understands Yale’s concerns about ensuring security for Hu’s visit, but he said those concerns are not sufficient grounds for restricting peaceful protests.
“I think that [security] is one of the chief concerns of the administrators, because it’s a very high-profile visit,” Rhie said. “Because there have been instances in the past of Chinese officials visiting American sites where protestors have been disruptive, there is a heightened security concern. But that is no excuse for infringing on the free speech rights of Yale students and U.S. citizens.”
Rhie said he thinks Yale’s strong relationship with China puts the University in a unique position to be able to encourage positive change in that country.
“I think Yale has a great relationship with China, but the purpose of the relationship is not just to send students to study at each other’s institutions,” he said. “It also involves improving upon areas that need to be improved upon. As a great supporter of a liberal society, Yale can effect changes in China.”
The letter claims that the decision to deny students protest space on campus is a violation of the University’s Free Speech Policy, which stipulates that every Yale official has “a special obligation to foster free expression and to ensure that it is not obstructed.”
SJN member Charles Alvarez ’09 said he thinks it will be difficult for protestors to get their message out if Yale restricts them to demonstrating on the Green.
“This silences the protesters because [the Green] is about two blocks away from the event,” Alvarez said. “None of the news crews is going to hear anything. Visitors aren’t going to hear anything.”
Alvarez said having access to visible protest space is important because Hu’s visit offers activists on campus the chance to highlight China’s history of environmental and human rights abuses — including the suppression of free expression, religious persecution, and construction of the Three Gorges Dam.
“We’re not against Hu’s visit,” Alvarez said. “We like that he’s visiting because it gives us the opportunity to bring up these issues. Yale people are generally uninformed about these issues. We hope to bring human rights in China to Yale as a whole.”
Following Hu’s address, a panel of faculty members will convene in Battell Chapel to discuss his speech and issues relating to contemporary China.