Cal State Northridge students demonstrated on campus Friday against removal of picnic tables used by political activists, accusing university officials of violating their right to free speech.
About 40 students participated in the noontime rally protesting the disappearance of tables from an area used by student organizations for political and religious speeches, publicity and debate.
The students said the four tables were removed in June, without their knowledge, from the breezeway separating the Sierra Hall Towers.
"We were up in arms because we used the benches on a daily basis to raise consciousness about political issues," said student Jeff Hinte, an organizer of the demonstration. Student Lisa Sherwood called the benches "a symbol" that "facilitated a forum in an area where we could talk about things, discuss things and debate things."
She said the breezeway is in an area where political and religious organizations could reach the most students.
But school officials maintain that a university policy instituted in 1986 prohibits gatherings in the breezeway because they create noise, congestion and safety hazards.
"I approved that policy, and I still think it is sound," said Cal State Northridge President James W. Cleary. "I received input from campus safety officers, security officers, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Fire Deparment that that is an unsafe situation. If something were to happen with two- or three-hundred people jammed through there, we could have a very serious situation."
'Common Sense Judgment'
"In my mind it has nothing to do with the right to free speech," Cleary said, adding that three other areas on campus are designated for student rallies. "It's a matter of common sense judgment and assuring the safest environment for all students."
But some students argued that the tables were in the breezeway off and on for almost two years after the policy was instituted and that school officials had not complained about noise or other problems when they were used.
"We sat at those benches every day last semester," student Charles Wilken said. "If the noise was a problem they should have told us."
Cleary said the benches never should have been in the breezeway. "I didn't even know the benches were there," he said. "Every so often someone moves the benches."
He said that although the policy had not been strictly enforced, the amount of noise and congestion has increased in the last few years. That is why the policy is being enforced now, he said.
At one point in the rally Friday, students marched to an area on the north side of the campus, picked up a picnic table and carried it back to the breezeway. They also presented administration officials with a petition to restore the breezeway tables.
"From time to time it surfaces," Cleary said about the controversy. "It becomes an issue about every four years when new students come in. It's been a non-problem. I regard it as a non-problem now."