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Supporting Students Who Protest Peacefully

A message from President Suzanne Rivera

Dear Macalester Community,

It has come to my attention that the college’s support of student engagement in civil disobedience has caused a stir. Indeed, my office has received numerous angry calls, emails, and even a threat of violence in response to my tweets this morning.

I want to tell the Macalester community in no uncertain terms where I stand:  peaceful protest is patriotic. It is our duty in this democracy to make our views known. This is true at the ballot box, in our classrooms, and beyond the walls of the campus.  

As I wrote in a letter to the Mac community dated June 15: “Macalester supports and affirms the rights of its students, staff, faculty, and alumni to engage in civil disobedience. The conscientious and peaceful refusal to obey certain laws, demands, orders or commands of a government with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or policies is a time-honored tradition in this country.”  In that same letter, I said: “The senior leadership team has been working on new ways that Macalester can contribute to the creation of a more just and peaceful world.  We have offered to reimburse transportation expenses incurred if students become stranded after curfew due to their participation in civil disobedience. We also have offered to work with students on setting up a way to reimburse any fines they may receive due to civil disobedience citations. And we are taking steps to make legal advice available to international students who want to participate in protests but worry about their visa status if they do so.”

Civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition in the U.S., and the rights to assembly and free speech are protected in the Constitution. This is not particular to any specific subject. It is about encouraging civic engagement and social action. Whether students are advocating for ensuring all votes are counted in our elections, which they were last night, or some other cause, I don’t think it’s my place to pass judgement on their views. The free exchange of ideas– even when done inconveniently– is one of the cornerstones of a liberal arts education.   

From my perspective, offering to reimburse fines for civil disobedience is an equity issue. What I am emphasizing here is that if any students cannot afford the fines for peaceful protest then I would be willing to reimburse them because freedom of speech is not a privilege only our wealthy students should enjoy.

I understand that some people will disagree with my position on this and I affirm their right to tell me so. I only ask that when we disagree, we engage in constructive dialogue about our differences of opinion, appreciating that each member of this community is entitled to safety, courtesy, and respect.

November 5, 2020