A group of University of Virginia undergraduates, graduate students, and a few faculty members, marched across Grounds today to a meeting of the Board of Visitors at the Harrison Institute to demand an array of changes including the resignation of its leader, Rector Helen Dragas.
"They blocked entry. That's what I was told by the professional law officers who were there."
So says new UVA public relations official Anthony Debruyn.
However, a Hook journalist present for the November 8 ouster of protestors from the upper hallway and vestibule of the Harrison Institute never saw any attempt at blocking and did see people easily passing in and out of the structure.
The journalist went back the next day with a tape-measure and found about 380 square feet of space. According to the classic estimations by late professor Herbert Jacobs, such space could have held a "tight crowd" of 84 people. Allowing each person to stand at arm's length from one another, a full ten square feet per person, what Jacobs called a "loose crowd," would have still permitted 38 people.
There were approximately 20 students ordered out of the building.
Neither President Sullivan nor her new chief operating officer, Pat Hogan, who oversees both the campus police and Laushway (who told students they could be "terminated"), would speak with a Hook reporter during a break in Friday's meeting.
Students interviewed after the ouster said that UVA founder Thomas Jefferson would have been appalled by what they viewed as an attack on free assembly and free speech. However, the UVA spokesperson was adamant.
"It's not a free speech issue," says Debruyn. "It was a fire, life, and safety issue."
Associate Dean of Students Aaron Laushway told the group that only seven students could be admitted to the basement room where the meeting was to take place despite the room's official capacity of 307. Seven students took the seats, waving signs during the meeting, but never saying a word. For about an hour of the meeting, there was no official mention of the sign-toting students.
"It was as though we were invisible," said protestor Laura Goldblatt, who described some official statements made to the students before the meeting started as "intimidation."
"We were reminded as we went in that we weren't allowed to speak," said fellow protestor Dannah Dennis, noting that student affairs V-P Patricia Lampkin issued the warning.
The warnings intensified during a break following the main portion of the meeting. The seven students present for the meeting went back upstairs to the vestibule of the Harrison Institute to reunite with the rest of the protestors (totaling approximately 20 students at that point). Dean Laushway then told the group to leave the premises. With 18 armed UVA Police officers ushering protestors– and even media– outside, Dean Laushway was asked why they couldn't stay.
"If you try to come in the building, there will be consequences," said Laushway.
At least five times, Laushway was asked what the consequences might be. As the question was asked again and the tension escalated, Laushway finally produced a piece of paper whose text he read aloud.
He said students who failed to immediately disperse from the building might be breaking Virginia law and could face school sanctions "up to and including termination from the University."
That– and the glares of the 18 uniformed officers– dispersed the students, who reconvened moments later inside Brooks Hall. Earlier, they had announced an interest in avoiding arrest or any jeopardy to their status as students.
"We played by the rules and still we were threatened with expulsion," said protestor Dennis. "Welcome to the BOV's University of Virginia."
After the students were gone, Dean Laushway was asked why he warned the students about expulsion, and he denied making such a warning. A reporter reminded him that he used the phrase "termination from the university."
"I have never known anyone expelled for speaking," said Laushway. "I was trying to engage the students, which is my job."
Later, sitting behind Rector Dragas, a journalist handed her a hand-written message asking whether she supported the treatment and asking why she never acknowledged the protestors' wish to speak. She referred the questions to the president and the chief operating officer.
The next day, UVA Police spokesperson Melissa Fielding said that additional police are "standard procedure" during a board protest and released the text of Laushway's warning.
It turns out that the warning comes from a stock UVA statement, which, according to its own text, should be read by an administrator "in the event that a demonstration blocks access to University facilities or otherwise interferes with the normal operation of the University."
"There's no evidence there was any disruption whatsoever," says Charlottesville civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel, blasting as bogus Laushway's seven-seat limit when others, including the Hook's reporter/photographer, were allowed to walk around the meeting.
Fogel recalls how UVA got into trouble with constitutional rights scholars several years ago when it briefly banned fans from carrying signs into Scott Stadium after students hoisted placards denouncing then football coach Al Groh.
"There is nothing more scurrilous under the First Amendment than making distinction on what they say," says Fogel, noting that UVA proceeded to fire the coach whose poor win-loss record prompted the signs.
"Their principal threat is to throw them out of the school," says Fogel. "That's quite an attitude at a university whose presumptive purpose is the exploration of ideas."
UVA COO Patrick Hogan said he could meet with a reporter "next week."