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University Cites Eminent Domain to Kick Students Off Property

"Legally incomprehensible"

Danno Hung | Wikimedia CommonsDanno Hung | Wikimedia Commons

In a repressive double play, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has both censored student speech and tried to justify its clampdown with an absurd interpretation of eminent domain law.

In Februrary, security guards at the New York college removed two students from a public sidewalk outside a hockey game for passing out buttons and fliers that criticized the university. The students were supporting the "Renew Rensselaer" campaign, an alumni group that seeks to expose adminstrative abuses of powers. When the students pointed out that they had a right to be on public property, the guards suggested that the school controlled the property through eminent domain.

This drew the attention of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which had already sent the school three letters about its restrictive approach to students' free expression. In its fourth letter, FIRE explained that the guards' argument was "as preposterous as it is legally incomprehensible. Eminent domain is the practice of a public body condemning and seizing real property for a public purpose, not a private institution requisitioning public lands for its own purpose."

While the institute has not responded to FIRE's letter, school official Richie Hunter did speak with The Washington Free Beacon about the case. She would not answer questions about the university's odd interpretation of eminent domain. Instead she suggested that the student handbook gave the school authority to quell the protest. Because these students failed to get prior authorization, Hunter says the school was justified in removing them from the sidewalk.

One of the students who was thrown off the sidewalk later emailed Hunter, asking her to clarify what part of the student handbook she referenced. In response, she cited a section called "Use of Institute Buildings and Facilities"—a segment clearly designed to cover private property—and stated: "Activities which groups wish to promote a cause, event, etc. must work either through the Union, Dean of Students Office, or the appropriate location supervisor to receive permission." The sidewalk in question, again, is public property.

Students at Rensselaer have been involved in an ongoing battle with the administration concerning who controls the student union. The university guarantees that it "shall not impede or obstruct students in the exercise of their fundamental rights as citizens" and that "students and student groups shall be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately," but it has rejected the student body's request to protest and it has charged a student with "operating an illegal business" to prevent him from handing out information. Videos of the administration tearing down fliers and a recording of guards ordering students not to post literature have been posted online.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...the guards suggested that the school controlled the property through eminent domain.

    Instead of firing off letters we should be commending these first responders for thinking quick on their feet. Also, just hipcheck the students onto school property and then shut them down.

  • DajjaI||

    What snowflakes. I protest on public sidewalks all the time. The key is not to blindly follow the orders of the fascists when they tell you to leave. If you think exchanging emails with the dean will solve the problem then you've already lost. Yes they will threaten to call the police but guess what? Most of the time it's an empty threat and even if they do the police will just see you standing there peacefully and move on. And even if they don't well then stop drop and scream "hands up don't shoot" until they back off.

  • ||

    They're not fascists, just useful muppets following orders. The totalitarians giving the orders to the orderers are the problem

  • Agammamon||

    Useful Muppets following orders is the textbook definition of a fascist.

    Fascism doesn't work without them.

  • Rhywun||

    The students were supporting the "Renew Rensselaer" campaign, an alumni group that seeks to expose adminstrative abuses of powers.

    It's like rain on your wedding day.

  • Brandybuck||

    There was a flood on my parents' wedding day. Some of the wedding party had to arrive via rowboat. This explains much about me I suppose.

  • Eidde||

    The college administrators seem to have an ED problem.

  • Brandybuck||

    Where is Bob Dole when you need him?

  • Your Mom||

    Probably off inventing pants.

  • Longtobefree||

    The university guarantees that it "shall not impede or obstruct students in the exercise of their fundamental rights as citizens" and that "students and student groups shall be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately,"

    What is the criminal penalty in that state for fraudulent guarantees?

  • markm23||

    I don't know about criminal penalties, but it sounds like the university's actions are a clear, deliberate, and blatant breach of contract.

  • Brandybuck||

    Wait... is this a public sidewalk outside of the university? Not merely a private university sidewalk that is publicly accessible? Are universities now so arrogant they think they can project their silliness out beyond their bounds?

    Why are the woodchippers standing idle?

  • Eidde||

    "Are universities now so arrogant they think they can project their silliness out beyond their bounds?"

    I think that's the universities' raison d'etre, to be fair.

  • silver.||

    Oh, they're not idle, there are just much bigger logs to chip first.

  • Your Mom||

    The logs have been seized by eminent domain.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Cops tend to be stupid and security guards are even worse.

    Nothing about eminent domain allows government to kick someone off a sidewalk. Even if it did, the school would have to give reasonable compensation for the taking.

  • Eidde||

    They were worried that if they kept quiet they'd look stupid.

    But better to be silent and be thought a fool than to open your yap and remove all doubt.

  • Eidde||

    Or they may have been playing "troll the civilian."

  • silver.||

    Maybe this explains cop-talk, too. A cop who stops talking in the middle of an interaction to refer to his legal cliffnotes isn't very intimidating. They have to pull shit out of their ass and state it authoritatively to maintain the illusion of control.

  • Number 2||

    Please. I doubt if the security guards have any idea what the phrase actually means. More likely that one of them heard it mentioned on a Law and Order episode and thought it would make him sound smart.

  • operagost||

    This.

  • cc2||

    So they can stop students from doing things when they want to, which means they approve of the students burning stuff down. QED

  • swampwiz||

    Ah, RPI. I remember being a high-ACT-scoring prospective engineering student (far away on the Gulf Coast) in the '80s getting bombarded with junk mail from a lot of private universities NOT named Princeton, etc., apparently trying to use its reputation of being a geeky place where the male students are celibate as a reason for students to matriculate there.

    Why would a healthy, life-enjoying heterosexual (or is it "cisgendered" these days?) male student like me want to choose to pay to travel an extra 1000 miles to pay 20X the tuition (actually infinitely more since I ended getting a free ride) to be around geeky male students instead of cute coeds at State U, enjoying the complete college experience?

  • operagost||

    State laws vary. For example, in PA, that sidewalk would almost certainly be technically private property because the property line extends to the middle of the road or street. However, the right of way renders public access, which allows free legal use of it by the public. That's why cities can enforce their requirements that homes and businesses clear the snow from the sidewalks on the front of their properties. So, I don't know NY law, but if it were PA, there would be absolutely nothing legal the college could do to peaceful protesters.

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