Interventions from police, staff call Pitt’s protest policies into question


Pamela Smith | Visual Editor

Pitt police stand outside of the O’Hara Student Center where Cabot Phillips spoke on March 24.

By Jack Troy, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt’s policies for on-campus demonstrations were once again put to the test on March 24 as hundreds of students, faculty and community members rallied against a series of “anti-trans” speakers coming to campus. 

Around 20 students disrupted an event inside the O’Hara Student Center featuring conservative commentator Cabot Phillips as it began. Pitt police escorted them out — one of several demonstrations cut short by officers this academic year for apparent violations of University policy. 

More protests are likely on the horizon as Michael Knowles — who has called for the eradication of “transgenderism” — is set to debate “transgenderism and womanhood” at the same location on April 18. 

Cameryn Gray, who helped organize the protest, maintains that they were not in violation of the Student Code of Conduct, which contains guidelines for on-campus demonstrations. The protestors talked among themselves as Phillips took the mic, and at one point they booed him.

Gray said Karin Asher, assistant dean for student engagement and professional development, asked the protestors to quiet down. 

“She kept continuing to tell me that I’m violating the guidelines, but she couldn’t tell me which ones we as a group were violating,” Gray said. “I just felt like [Pitt officials] were extremely unprepared and unprofessional when I was fully equipped with the professional language to address them.”

University spokesperson Jared Stonesifer did not cite any specific violations as cause for the protestors’ removal. Stonesifer also said the University determines the permissibility of demonstrations on a case-by-case basis.

“The University is committed to the principles of free expression, including lawful protest and demonstration, but its core mission is education through providing a broad range of educational programs and activities,” Stonesifer said. “In order to succeed in this mission, the University must at times take steps to prioritize education when demonstrations disrupt or interfere.”

Pitt’s event scheduling guidelines state that University officials or police may remove protesters who interfere with the audience’s ability to hear or view the speaker. 

The guidelines also allow staff or police to shut down events that impede traffic, involve actual or threatened physical harm or damage University property. Additionally, protestors can’t use lamps or torches, signs with rigid supports or megaphones indoors. 

The University has stopped several other protests recently, including one in the William Pitt Union on Feb. 24 when roughly 100 faculty union supporters gathered to push for progress in contract talks with administration. 

Police threatened to arrest protestors who remained in the building as the Board of Trustees meeting was set to begin in the nearby assembly room. After a brief conversation between Pitt police Commander of Investigations David Basile and union Bargaining Chair Tyler Bickford, protesters filed outside to continue their demonstration. 

University spokesperson Chuck Finder said the union lacked approval to protest in the building, adding that “any communications between the Pitt police and union leadership on this issue were intended to ensure the union was fully informed of next steps.”

Melinda Ciccocioppo, chair of the union’s communications and action team, did not respond when asked whether the union sought approval. 

Police issued similar threats in the fall to students protesting Pitt’s response to sexual violence incidents, warning that those who didn’t leave the center of the Cathedral of Learning’s first floor would face University sanctions. 

The demonstration coincided with the Blue & Gold Bash, part of Pitt’s annual homecoming festivities. All protestors moved to the perimeters of the first and second floors or continued to protest outside. 

There’s no process specifically dedicated to permitting protests, but registered student organizations can reserve a number of indoor and outdoor spaces through a Request for Use of Facilities form. Groups must list the date and time of the event, a brief description, the desired facility, estimated attendance and type of people in attendance, such as students or faculty.

Groups who are not officially recognized by or affiliated with the University can still make a reservation with the support of a full-time faculty or staff member. Sponsors must also reach an agreement with the appropriate senior administrator and accept liability for any damages caused by the event. 

No groups attempted to reserve space for a demonstration to coincide with the Phillips event, according to Stonesifer. 

Students participating in on-campus events must adhere to the code of conduct, which outlines individual sanctions for violators ranging from fines to persona non grata status. Registered student organizations that run afoul of the code could be barred from social activities, required to complete community service or be disbanded, among other penalties. 

Emma Gray, a member of the Fossil Free Pitt Coalition, said she’d like to see “a more transparent approach” to the code of conduct and “more specific” rules within the code. 

A University employee threatened police involvement if FFPC protestors failed to leave the Cathedral during an October sit-in, though officers weren’t called to the scene after students insisted they weren’t violating any rules. The organization is unaffiliated with the University. 

Cameryn Gray would also like to see changes in how Pitt handles protests, such as providing medics, limiting the presence of law enforcement and making University officials and police more familiar with the code of conduct. 

“I was disappointed with their lack of preparation. Because if you plan to kick us out, at least do it well,” Gray said.