In a recent demonstration decrying President Barack Obama's policy in Afghanistan, student protesters unintentionally started a small war of their own -- over their right to free speech on a college campus.
On Dec. 3, two members of Pittsburgh Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) -- which bills itself as a "radical, multi-issue student and youth organization" -- dropped a large banner from the balcony of the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. "Nobel War Prize," it read.
"It's pretty ironic that Obama got the [Nobel] Peace Prize," says Pitt freshman Liam Swanson, who held one side of the banner. "We wanted to show our opposition to the escalation of the war."
But after spending roughly 15 minutes dangling the banner from the side of the building, Swanson says, they were interrupted by Jerome Cochran, the school's executive vice chancellor and general counsel. Cochran demanded the banner be taken down, saying school policy forbade it.
The encounter was captured on video and posted online at http://vimeo.com/8005677. The video has been edited, making the exact sequence of events difficult to reconstruct. But Cochran can clearly be heard identifying himself, and telling the demonstrators, "You're violating the policy."
Elsewhere on the tape, Cochran can be heard explaining, "There is a policy: no banners on the building." And the footage suggests that for part of the protest, at least one end of the banner was anchored to the balcony's stone railing by a rope. But Swanson says it was quickly untied after Cochran complained. As the video shows, the protesters then held the sign themselves.
"We're not hanging [the banner]," argues Swanson's co-demonstrator, whom Swanson declined to identify, except to say he was not a Pitt student. "We're just holding it."
"Don't be a smart-ass," Cochran fires back. "You know what? Save it. Save it. Save it! You'll get your citation and you'll go to court."
When the protester continues to object, Cochran yells "Shut up, OK?" Later, he points to the camera and says, "And you can't use that."
Eventually, a campus-police officer arrived, ordering the banner's removal.
Cochran did not return phone calls for comment. Pitt's vice chancellor of public affairs also did not respond to e-mails and phone calls inquiring about the university's demonstration policy. Pitt police officials referred comment to the university's public-affairs office.
Swanson says that none of the protesters was issued a citation. One officer told the protesters that dropping a banner from the Cathedral was illegal, since "It's not public [property]."
Some legal experts disagree. The protesters were will within their rights, they say -- as long as they were simply holding the banner.
"It's not private property," argues Vic Walczak, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Who died and made the executive vice chancellor the emperor? ... I don't see how [the university] can possibly justify" telling students that they can't hold banners on campus.
"The law is very clear: Public university property is a designated public forum," says ACLU staff attorney Sara Rose, who watched the video online. "[Holding a banner] is protected by the First Amendment."
Rose says the university may be justified in ordering a banner's removal if it is tied to the structure. Similarly, a demonstration inside the building could have been illegal. "But outside is clearly a public forum."
And according to Rose, Cochran should know better: As general counsel, he's the university's top lawyer.
"It really concerns me that the general counsel for the university is telling students that an outdoor area is private property and off limits to free speech," she says. "If anyone is expected to know the law, I think the general counsel should."