In a sweeping review of how it regulates free speech and the use of public campus grounds, the University of Missouri is considering enforcing a 67-year-old rule that prohibits overnight camping.
The review, by a committee formed in January by interim Chancellor Hank Foley and Faculty Council chairman Ben Trachtenberg, comes after the Concerned Student 1950 group erected a tent city on the university’s Carnahan Quadrangle in Columbia last November.
Concerned Student, a predominantly black student group, spent a week in tents to protest racial oppression on the campus. It led to a student hunger strike, the threat of a boycott by the football team and the eventual resignations of the university system president and the chancellor of the Columbia campus.
The encampment was briefly home to dozens of students, including hunger striker Jonathan Butler. In the aftermath, the university came under intense criticism from Missouri lawmakers and alumni who said the protest damaged the school’s reputation.
The rule against camping overnight, which dates to 1949, says a person can’t create a “bedroom or living room” on campus grounds. It doesn’t specifically address tents or whether students can create a tent city that’s occupied only during the day.
The rule was intended to ensure that students slept indoors in safe conditions.
Last year’s tent city was not the first time student protesters took long-term occupation of a campus quad.
In 1986, in a protest of Apartheid student activists erected a “shantytown” in the Francis Quadrangle and demanded that MU fully divest of all its investment holdings in South Africa. The shantytown protest lasted for a year. The university, on its website features the action announcing an on-campus talk — “Legacy of a successful protest” — held last month about that occupation 30 years ago.
University officials on Monday did not say why they didn’t enforce the rule last fall in Columbia, as the student protest intensified and drew national attention. But they did say it was under review as part of a broad-based look at how the university regulates free speech and governs the use of public space on the campus.
Other policies under consideration by the committee include distribution of fliers, protests inside buildings and guidelines for how to reserve outdoor event spaces.
The committee, which includes students, faculty and administrators, set out to make all the campus and system rules that pertain to free speech and public space easily accessible.
“After the shake-up in the fall, one thing that kept coming up was, what are the rules about public space and what should they be?” said Trachtenberg. “Are people allowed to put tents on the quad?”
As it turned out, the university “has had a prohibition on overnight sleeping on campus for years. There is a health and safety concern,” said Bob Jerry, an MU law professor and chairman of the Ad Hoc Joint Committee on Protests, Public Spaces, Free Speech and the Press.
On Monday, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that MU Police Chief Doug Schwandt said on a KFRU radio broadcast last week that the rule against camping overnight on campus would be enforced in the future.
Schwandt, who is a member of the committee, was unavailable for comment Monday. But he told the Tribune that last November it was the university administration that had allowed students to camp on the quad.
Trachtenberg told The Star that university administrators sent heaters and other supplies to the students’ tent-city protest.
“I don’t think that would happen again,” Schwandt told the Tribune. “I think there’s lessons learned from that. I doubt there would be approval to allow overnight camping again on campus.”
But Jerry said no recommendation on the 1949 rule has been made by the committee. It is still working on a final report for the university, he said.
He also said the committee was not created to limit free speech on the campus but rather to recommend rules, policies or best practices that he said would “preserve, protect and promote free expression, free speech and First Amendment rights on campus.”
As part of this review, the university said in March that it was “committed to a completely free and open discussion of ideas.” It also said in the same report that “the university may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not significantly disrupt the university’s ordinary activities.”
The committee is expected to make policy and rule recommendations that will do both. Trachtenberg said he expects a report over the summer break followed by a series of campus forums in the coming school year to discuss the recommendations.