CHARLOTTESVILLE, MAY 28 -- About 150 apartheid protesters gathered on the University of Virginia's historic Lawn today while several of them built a shanty in defiance of a much-debated school policy.
The seven-foot-tall structure made of particle board and chicken wire was quickly torn down by a university maintenance crew after the protesters ignored a dean's order to remove it.
Leaders of the protest, which was held a half hour before a meeting of the university's Board of Visitors, said they plan to go to court next week over the forced removal, the latest action in a yearlong fight between students and the administration over the right to protest on the upper Lawn.
The university allows protests, including construction of shanties on the lower portion of the Lawn, which is about 450 feet from the Rotunda building where the board holds its quarterly meetings.
"By removing the shanty, they have prohibited symbolic speech which is protected by the First Amendment," said the protesters' attorney, Steven Rosenfield.
Steve Pershing, a spokesman for the protesters and a recent graduate of the law school, said the demonstration had a positive effect on board members, even though today's action took place out of sight of most of them, who were eating lunch in the Rotunda at the time.
The Lawn protests, and the construction of shanties, have become a focal point for student concerns over South Africa as well as race relations at the school. Today's protest included students, alumni, faculty members and local church and community activists.
The group called on the university to increase the number of black students and faculty members and urged better treatment for blacks who are there now.
Speakers also renewed longstanding demands that the university divest its holdings in companies doing business in South Africa, a country where separation of the races is mandated by law. About 13 percent of the university's $387 million endowment is invested in such firms.
"We're still trying to remind them that they still need to address this issue and stop doing it gradually," said the Rev. Alvin Edwards, pastor at the Mount Zion Baptist Church here.
The Finance Committee of the Board of Visitors is scheduled to discuss recommendations to change certain aspects of the university's policy governing investments during a closed session on Friday.
The board's Finance Committee had intended to consider the recommendations, which were drawn up by its special Proxy Advisory Committee, at its last meeting in March. But the board postponed the discussion after 30 students staged a sit-in and spent the night in the Rotunda meeting room.
Ernest H. Ern, vice president for student affairs, described today's protest as "inappropriate in that particular setting to have that sort of expression."
The university maintains that the shanties affect the esthetics that Thomas Jefferson envisioned for the Lawn and Rotunda area.
In March, two students sought an injunction against the university's ban, which the students said violated their First Amendment rights. Two weeks ago, a federal judge in Roanoke ruled the school's policy was too vague to be enforceable. The university responded with a revised policy, which was in effect today.
The shanty at today's protest was hastily built and then protected during the dean's two-minute warning.