In the past two weeks a debate has arisen about UT students’ right to free speech. On Sept. 15, 18 UT students who occupied President William Powers Jr.’s office to persuade the administration to join the Workers Rights Consortium attended a hearing in a downtown courtroom. 17 students ended up accepting plea deals rather than continue fighting the trespassing charges. Because UT did in fact engage in talks with the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition and joined the Workers Rights Consortium this past summer (presumably because of the students’ argument, although this has been denied by the administration) it has been argued that the administration is inconsistent in praising the students but failing to drop the charges, and pressing charges will discourage future student activism. I strongly disagree with all of these assertions, and believe that when one protests, one chooses to accept the consequences.
I do commend and admire the students for protesting and eventually accepting the plea deals that were offered. They showed selflessness and highlighted what Lucy Griswold, spokeswoman for the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition, called the “collective struggle that has always been at the heart of our movement.” These students have set a fine example of the “maturity” that President Powers spoke of after meeting with the Coalition.
Other columnists have argued that the administration’s refusal to drop the charges, even while conceding to the protesters’ demands, sets “a tone” regarding “nonviolent protest or even freedom of speech.” Griswold says the arrests send the message that consideration of students’ grievances only comes “after a night in jail.” She argues, “It sends the message that no amount of rationality in [the students’] argument, in their facts, and in their tactics will ever undo the single ‘irrational’ act of getting arrested.”
This argument is lacking because it sets up a false dilemma for President Powers. He can either agree with the protesters and drop the charges — possibly setting a precedent that will encourage other, less noble protest activities — or remain stubborn in his position so as to uphold what he believes to be the rule of law. Griswold’s argument also ignores the difference between the ability to speak one’s mind without fear of reprisal and blanket immunity from normal sanctions against illegal actions. I propose a different mindset for the protesters: Celebrate your victory and accept, without complaint, the penalty for violating laws for the sake of the greater good.
In 1917, Gandhi, one of the founders of modern non-violence action, faced trial for intervening illegally on behalf of workers who were being treated improperly by indigo planters in the Champaran district in the Indian state of Bahir. He resolved “to submit without protest to the penalty of disobedience.” In explaining his reasoning he “ventured to make this statement [to the judge] not in any way in extenuation of the penalty to be awarded against me, but to show that I have disregarded the order served upon me, not for want of respect for lawful authority, but in obedience of the higher law of our being‑the voice of conscience.”
Gandhi affirmed that in civil disobedience, one must follow one’s conscience, and those who make and enforce the laws must allow for the sentences prescribed by law. Participation in nonviolence requires a cheerful acceptance of the penalties imposed upon you. President Powers, in bowing to the pressure to talk to the protesters and eventually joining the Consortium, recognized the substantive allegations behind the protesters’ complaints. This recognition does not, however, release him from his duty to allow the law to be enforced.
My father, an anti-nuclear protester in the 1970s, always refused to intervene when I wound up in in-school suspension for physically defending myself or others, even as he agreed that I was not wrong in doing so. He reminded me that he had arranged trespasses with the police in order to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant in Tulsa, Okla. He gladly paid the resultant ticket because he knew, as Gandhi did, that to satisfy one’s conscience, one sometimes has to break laws. In order to maintain justice, one also must pay the penalties for that disobedience. Trespassing laws, while inconvenient, deserve respect.
If students truly believe in their cause, they should consider the trespassing fines immaterial. They should not allow the punishment to impede their activism. When students learn that every action has consequences, and that the price is worth paying without complaint, then this campus will see more, not less, activism. Activists who look to Gandhi’s example will become stronger and less deterred by penalties, whether they be jail time or fines. This mettle can inspire other activists, and hopefully grab the serious attention and respect of those in power.
Knoll is a Latin American studies senior from Dallas, Texas.