Four students are bringing suit against Boston University in a case that could set an important precedent, enlarging the rights of students at Massachusetts private schools.
The Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union (CLUM) has adopted the case of Yosef Abramowitz, a BU senior, and three classmates, who say they were unfairly treated after they hung banners that read "BU DIVEST" from their dormitory windows.
In an appeal hearing Wednesday in Middlesex Superior Court, their counsel argued that the BU administration violated the students' civil rights when it evicted Abramowitz from his dormitory, served eviction notices to the other three, and threatened Abramowitz with expulsion.
At issue is whether students' rights to freedom of speech are as protected at private institutions as they are at public ones, said Marjorie Hines, a CLUM staff attorney who serves as counsel to the plaintiffs.
She said she is confident Judge Haskell C. Freedman will rule in their favor. He is expected to announce his decision at least a month from now.
Boston University officials and counsel were not available for comment.
Hines said the First Amendment defends individuals against discipline or censorship by the government, which has been interpreted in previous cases to apply to public universities. However, she said the Bill of Rights does not govern similar action within private institutions like BU or Harvard.
The Massachusetts Civil Rights Act of 1979 has a wider scope, prohibiting interference with civil rights by private as well as public entities. However, she said this is the first case in the state to test whether or not the statute protects free speech for students at private schools.
"It will be very significant because for the first time a state court will have ruled that students at private universities have free speech rights," she said of the decison.
Another legal expert familiar with the case said similar civil suits brought against Massachusetts private schools during the 1960's were unsuccessful, because the state law had not yet been enacted.
BU administrators argued in court that the university had a right to maintain the "aesthetic appearance" of its housing by prohibiting signs visible from outside. The plaintiffs countered by calling witnesses who said that various objects, including neon beer signs and Confederate flags, had been allowed to hang in or outside windows for months.
Abramowitz, who was the first to hang a banner, said the sign had been allowed to remain in place for an hour and a half, before university officials removed it for the first of five times.
The other plaintiffs are seniors Anthony Bedard and Jeffrey Weaver, and 1986 graduate George Lundskow. Bedard said several students, including the three plaintiffs, began to hang banners after Abramowitz's was removed.
Weaver and Lundskow are two of eleven students arrested under charges of disorderly conduct last April 24, when they attempted to build symbolic "shanties" in front of the school's student union. Lundskow and two other students were arrested for trying to stop university employees from dismantling the plywood structures.
Eight others, including Weaver, were then arrested when they tried to prevent the police officers from driving away. The first three were placed on probation and the second group was suspended until January. Now dubbed the "BU eleven," they face a pre-trial hearing in criminal court on October 17.
Bedard said Weaver recently received an honorable discharge from the Marines' Reserve Officer Training Corps, and is now serving as campaign manager for a Socialist gubernatorial candidate in Vermont. Lundskow graduated last year while still under probation.
The students in the banner policy case, and the ones arrested last spring, were protesting the university's $22.3 million invested in corporations which do business with South Africa. Boston University's policy on student activism has tended to reflect the conservative views of its president, John Silber.