Debate arises over occupy UT's student organization status

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Occupy UT member Lucian Villaseñor, a Mexican-American Studies senior, leads group members down to Kealing Park for the Student Forum on Education on Monday. Villaseñor said the group’s biggest challenge and goal right now is recruiting members.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Efforts to raise awareness about the Occupy UT movement have prompted a debate between the group and the Office of the Dean of Students over University policies and procedures regarding on-campus demonstrations.

Concerns regarding Occupy UT’s status as an unofficial student organization first arose in December but are becoming a hot topic this semester as the group’s activity is becoming more regular. Occupy UT members have said a physical occupation and camping overnight at the University is a possibility, and they plan on having a series of teach-ins with faculty members and a walking tour on the history of racism on campus within the next few weeks.

Soncia Reagins-Lilly, senior associate vice president and dean of students, said her office tries to meet with every new student organization and was not looking for conflict with Occupy UT. She said the group has not told her office about upcoming events, making its attempts to facilitate and work with the organization difficult.

Reagins-Lilly said she has informed members of the group about certain policies but cannot make any recommendations without knowing the group’s intentions.

“We facilitate freedom of expression, demonstration and controversial speakers — that is what we do,” she said. “It becomes adversarial when students, faculty and staff that aren’t aware of the guidelines and procedures set up and we show up and say, ‘this is how you have to do it.’”

University administrative members have met with Occupy UT since the group’s inception last fall. Occupy UT member Lucian Villaseñor said the group did not want to become an official student organization because doing so would limit their abilities.

“They can certainly gather, and they have the freedom to associate and be together,” Reagins-Lilly said. “The focus is helping facilitate student and campus life for all that want to be involved in it in a way that doesn’t disrupt the core mission of the institution.”

There is a difference between students gathering together and holding a demonstration, she said, but they need to reserve the location and time just as other students and organizations must.

University police chief Robert Dahlstrom said the UT Police Department did not see any reason to be concerned about Occupy UT because not many protests have resulted in arrests in the past. He said UTPD would only get involved if a person hurts another person, if property is destroyed or if administrative rules are broken. UTPD waits for the dean of students to give a warning and allows time for students to comply before they get involved.

Dahlstrom said it would be beneficial for Occupy UT to register as an official organization.

“I totally disagree with them having less rights,” he said. “They could actually reserve places to protest, and dean of students would help them and UTPD would help them.”

Buddy Price, spokesperson for the University of North Texas, said except in the case of of 23-year-old member Darwin Cox’s death, the Occupy Denton movement on campus was nonviolent and police officers never had to confront the group. Occupy Denton members camped out at UNT for two months but moved their campsite when Cox was found dead in a tent due to alcohol and heroin intoxication, according to UNT’s “North Texas Daily.”

“Disturbing the peace was not a concern, as the group contacted UNT prior to setting up their site, and discussions were held on UNT rules and code of student conduct,” Price said.

Trevor Hoag, English graduate student and Occupy UT member, said he agrees with UT officials on some issues, such as the risks of camping overnight. He said the more pressing safety matter did not concern camping over night but rather the stereotypes associated with the Occupy movement.

Hoag said the Occupy movements were non-violent but were rarely treated as such.

“We’re activists, not criminals and we’re here to spread the message of the movement, not destroy anything or hurt anyone,” Hoag said. “It’s unfortunate, too, because depicting us in this way hurts our ability to bring people into the group.”