With cardboard signs held high in unison and chants echoing across Ohio University’s campus, more than 100 students, faculty members and local residents gathered to protest the university’s interim “Freedom of Expression” policy.
The deadline for public feedback on the policy was Friday at 11:59 p.m.
“I’m here because OU is trying to suppress students’ voices, and it is unconstitutional, and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” Ruby Cochran, a junior studying business and accounting, said.
Cochran was one of the 70 people arrested and charged with criminal trespassing at a February demonstration, during which students protested President Donald Trump’s first travel ban.
The interim policy, which was approved Aug. 17, effectively bans “demonstrations, rallies, public speech-making, picketing, sit-ins, marches, protests and similar assemblies,” and allows the university to limit conduct that disrupts its operations, interferes with student activities or poses safety risks.
Athens Police Department Chief Tom Pyle said APD knew about the protest for several weeks. The group protesting applied for a parade permit Thursday, and Pyle denied it for “lack of an interest certificate.”
“We were led to believe by the applicant at that time that they would be marching in the street illegally, so we are here to try to prevent that if possible,” Pyle said.
Some OU faculty members, including Ziad Abu-Rish, an assistant professor of history, attended the rally on their “own accord.”
“We are here for something much greater than freedom of speech,” Abu-Rish said. “We are not alone — the campus has spoken unanimously.”
The rally began at the Athens County Courthouse on Court Street, and protesters began marching around College Green and down Morton Hill at about 6:30 p.m., before looping back around Baker Center and ending their march at the Civil War monument on College Green.
The only direct counter-protester was a man wearing a black mask who stood across the street from the courthouse holding a sign that said, “Commie lives don’t matter.” Eventually, the man sat in his car across the street, blaring his horn, while holding up his middle finger.
Pyle said he told the man he could stay there if he parked properly in the space and warned him that he could be arrested for violating the noise ordinance if he didn’t stop honking his car horn. The man then drove away.
Several officers from the OU Police Department followed the march on the adjacent sidewalks and were posted near Baker Center and on College Green.
Dylan Vanover, a member of the International Socialist Organization in Athens, criticized university administrators and said if OU President Duane Nellis doesn’t rescind the policy by Nov. 8, students and faculty should go on strike.
“They’d have to drop bombs over our heads to keep us quiet,” Vanover said.
Hazel Goodburn, one of the organizers of the protest and another of the students who was arrested as part of the "Baker 70" in February, said she believes the protest ban is wrong and felt “pretty good” about the protest.
“A lot more people showed up than I thought, so I’m really glad about that, and so far, nothing bad has happened, and I’m just feeling excited right now,” Goodburn, a sophomore studying anthropology and music, said.
Goodburn said she was worried about the repercussions of the interim policy.
“Especially in this time, where there are all these traits of fascism in the country, I mean, it’s really dangerous to implement a policy that’s oppressing freedom of speech on the college campus,” Goodburn said. “I’m very worried, and it’s not OK to threaten students with arrests just for expressing their ideas.”
Daniel Kington, a senior studying English and a member of ISO, said he thinks those policies were instituted as a result of the acquittal of the 70 students the university arrested in Baker in February.
“I think it says so much about the way the university views us as students,” Kington said. “This is their response to the failure of those convictions on the basis of the arrests were unconstitutional.”
Prince Shakur, a 2015 OU graduate, recalled protesting the 2017 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith in St. Louis. As the Cutler Hall bells tolled in the background, Shakur stood atop the wall of the Civil War monument and led the protestors in a series of chants. The rally ended at about 7:10 p.m. with a “solidarity clap.”
“We have nothing to lose but our chains,” Shakur said. “I would rather die than not have the courage to build.”