The protests across area college campuses this school year have been reminiscent of the 1960s, with students taking over buildings, staging sit-ins, waving banners and camping out in symbolic shantytowns.
At issue is U.S. investment in South Africa, especially the use of university funds. But in recent weeks this controversy has given way to new questions about the way protesters are treated here at home.
At Georgetown University, where 35 antiapartheid students were arrested during the last week of April, faculty members have taken the unusual step of calling for a meeting next week so administrators can explain their actions.
At the University of Maryland, where 12 protesters were arrested last month, students filed a $100,000 civil suit in U.S. District Court against school officials.
It is the use of shantytowns, which protesting students say serve as reminders of the living conditions of blacks under apartheid in South Africa, that is the latest source of friction.
The shacklike structures have been prohibited at Georgetown, University of Maryland, American University and George Washington University. Johns Hopkins University is the only campus in this area where one still stands, albeit in violation of university policy.
University officials invariably say shantytowns are dangerous to the students who live in them -- but some officials have added a new twist, claiming that identification with the shantytown may subject a protester to violence from right-wing students.
In a letter sent to Georgetown University faculty members yesterday, Dean of Student Affairs John J. DeGioia wrote, "It was my best judgment that the construction of a shanty elevated the level of the demonstration to a point that threatened the safety and security of the demonstrators. Shanties have been on other campuses a source for aggressive behavior among students."
DeGioia cited confrontations at the University of Utah, Dartmouth College and Pennsylvania State University as examples of such "aggression."
For their part, student organizers of the antiapartheid demonstrations note that the tactic of "preventive arrest" is the same one used by southern policemen during the 1960s in an effort to quash civil rights demonstrations.
They cite a 1963 court case, Edwards v. South Carolina, in which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the "breach of peace" conviction of 187 black student demonstrators who had walked along the South Carolina State House grounds protesting racial discrimination.
In a manner similar to what happened at Georgetown, the demonstrators were ordered to disperse and were arrested when they refused. The Supreme Court ruled, however, that "the Constitution does not permit a state to make criminal the peaceful expression of unpopular views."
"If Jeane Kirkpatrick planned to give a speech at Georgetown and students threatened to throw eggs, would she be arrested -- or would the egg throwers?" asked Marguerite Fletcher, a Georgetown student and executive director of the D.C. Student Coalition Against Apartheid and Racism. "We believe this is a violation not only of student rights but the right to free speech."
"I feel probably more strongly about apartheid than most students," said University of Maryland Chancellor John Slaughter. "But I have an overriding concern for the safety and security of members of the campus community."
Slaughter said the shanties had been ordered removed when "vandals" overturned one of them while a protester was asleep inside.
The cases made by both sides have some merit, and while there does not appear to be an easy resolution, embroiled university officials do have two reasonable choices: They can either show tolerance, as Johns Hopkins University officials have done by allowing the structures to stand, or they can show courage, as George Mason University did when, on Dec. 29, 1985, the board of trustees voted to divest all funds from companies doing business with South Africa.