With the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, Kathlyn Henderson, a third-year English major at UCI, has prompted a UC systemwide change in its policy by allowing students to participate in protests while studying abroad.
In the midst of preparations for year-long study in France, Henderson received what she felt to be a disturbing e-mail from UCI’s EAP office stating, ‘Some concern has been raised over comments in your statement of purpose that indicate that you are drawn to France because of your interest in social activism. … While we are not trying to scare you, it is against EAP policy to participate in political demonstrations and the like.’
Henderson did not feel that the UC was in a position to regulate a student’s activities abroad.
‘Whether political protest is part of the experience [of studying abroad], it is a decision that I should make,’ Henderson said. ‘I don’t believe it is or should ever be the university’s decision.’
The e-mail referred Henderson to an appendix in the EAP guidelines outlining prohibited behaviors, without making clear distinctions between legal and illegal political activity.
Anxious that her statement of purpose might jeopardize her chances to study abroad, Henderson moved forward with the process. Upon her arrival in France, many fellow students voiced their awareness of the EAP policy concerning protest as well as their intentions to disregard it by omitting details of their activities to study center directors.
‘I had heard students saying, ‘Yeah, there’s that whole thing about student protest but I just ignore that,” Henderson said.
The fact that students could find themselves in perilous situations, in violation of EAP policy and unbeknownst to the directors, concerned Henderson.
‘What if there had been an emergency? How could the study center intervene without knowing the students’ activities and location?’ Henderson said.
The final straw came last September in the process of clarifying academic questions with administrative officials in France.
‘I went in to talk to them about whether certain units were transferable and when they pulled my file I noticed that on top of it was a Post-it note with the word ‘activist’ underlined twice,’ Henderson said. ‘It just reminded me that I was being targeted. I was afraid that EAP was somehow going to revoke my right to be there.’
Shortly thereafter, Henderson contacted the ACLU, whose attorneys promptly sent the university-wide EAP office a letter outlining First Amendment violations. University officials responded quickly and changed its policies.
‘They sent a letter to our attorneys here, responding with proposed changes in the guidelines,’ said Elizabeth Brennan of the ACLU of Southern California.
Henderson found the ACLU helpful to her situation.
‘The ACLU was a big help in giving me a sense of relief and confidence [in dealing with the issue],’ Henderson said.
The subsequent changes in the EAP guidelines differentiate between illegal political activities and actions otherwise legal that are harmful to the relationship between UC and host institutions with legal demonstrations and rights protected under the First Amendment. The new policy also reemphasizes safety concerns for students.
EAP representatives maintain that the guidelines have always existed in the best interest of the students involved and the program in general.
‘Students should be aware that certain kinds of conduct could pose problems for themselves,’ said Bruce Hanna, director of strategy and marketing for the UC EAP program. ‘What might be normal on UC campus might be provocative in other countries. … The guidelines were primarily for the safety of the students in pointing out that when students go into cultures they know nothing about, it may be illegal or dangerous to involve themselves in political activities.’
Henderson agrees that student safety is a concern.
‘Student safety is a good argument,’ Henderson added. ‘I just don’t think safety comes into play when you make broad generalizations about what you can’t do.’
John A. Marcum, director of the systemwide UC EAP program, emphasized that student safety is the EAP’s first concern, but that the new policy will improve the EAP program.
‘EAP is about safely extending students’ academic experience, deepening their understanding and broadening their awareness, so we commend Kathlyn Henderson for her resolve,’ Marcum said. ‘The refined student conduct policy is now a better fit to EAP.’
Henderson is satisfied with the changes as well.
‘I’m pleased with the clarifications. … Clarification was the issue,’ Henderson said.