Defend free speech

18 UT students will go to court this Friday. Arrested in April for participating in anti-sweatshop protests, they face trespassing charges from the Travis County Attorney’s Office.

Police arrested members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition on April 18, after the protesters refused to end their sit-in at UT President William Powers Jr.’s office at 5 p.m., the time the building closed. Although the university complied with the protesters’ demand in July by agreeing to join the Worker Rights Consortium — a labor rights monitoring group that places stricter controls on working conditions than did UT’s previous affiliate — the charges against the students have not been dropped.

UT claims it has no control over whether the charges are dropped. Because UT did not file the charges, administrators cannot order them dismissed, but Corby Holby, assistant trial director for the Travis County Attorney, told The Daily Texan, “Normally, on a criminal trespass case, say, the property owner where the person was trespassing, they would definitely have input.” Granted, the protestors took on the risk of criminal prosecution for trespassing when they occupied Powers’ office. But the university administration by its inaction in defense of the protesters now takes its own risk: the risk of setting a tone on campus that discourages non-violent protest and even exercise of free speech rights. Even if the administrators hadn’t ultimately agreed that the protesters had a point worth compromising on, they should nonetheless should now make clear to the UT community that on campus people have the right to express themselves if they don’t harm others in doing so.

The Travis County Attorney’s Office has offered the students two plea deals, neither includes jail time or expensive fines, but the protesters plan to contest the charges. “I think that it would be more meaningful and lasting for us to try to fight the charges,” government junior and Coalition spokeswoman Lucy Griswold said. “It will help preserve the right to protest on campus.”

According to Griswold, English professor Snehal Shingavi has been circulating a petition to get the charges dropped. He and other professors and community supporters are scheduled to present the petition to President Powers today in the hope that he will call for dismissal of the trespassing charges.

The university administration maintains that the charges are beyond its control and its inaction on the protesters’ behalf does not reflect a negative attitude about free speech rights. “The students in question were arrested and charged with trespassing, not for expressing their opinions,” said UT spokeswoman Tara Doolittle.

However, the university administration sends at best a mixed message by not coming to the protesters’ defense. “The decision to join the Worker Rights Consortium…resulted from some very productive conversations with students,” Doolittle said. Yet one cannot help but wonder if the president’s office would have granted the students those meetings without the media attention garnered by their sit-in.

To the protesters, UT’s ultimate decision to join th Worker Rights Consortium represents a validation of the Coalition’s grievances and adequate reason to call for the charges’ dismissal. “President Powers has lauded the students he met with for their maturity and preparedness,” Griswold said, “and yet he is still maintaining the criminalization of those same students.”