Matt Venezia, assistant opinions editor, is a junior biology major with a minor in writing.
Two weeks ago, Stony Brook University (SBU) was the site of an anti-vaccine mandate protest sponsored by the SBU chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative advocacy organization. The protest was, as my fellow opinions editors and I put it, a disgrace to the campus community.
No COVID-19 tests were required for attendees (who were mostly unvaccinated non-students), masks were optional and often not worn and, of course, no proof of vaccination was required. Hundreds of protesters gathered together with little regard for social distancing or the pandemic in general.
The chaotic, controversial scene at the fountain outside of the Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library on Sept. 12 was a failure on the part of the protesters and organizers of the protest, as well as the University. The safety of students and faculty was jeopardized by the lack of COVID-19 safety precautions taken, not to mention the rumors of armed protestors.
Because Stony Brook is a state-funded public university, the First Amendment prohibits the University from disallowing events such as these on campus. Thus, inevitably, there will be more protests similar to this one at the University in the future.
The protest two weeks ago set a precedent for future protests at the University. It showed that protesters, so long as the First Amendment is cited, can ignore the strict safety regulations implemented by the University to protect its students from the pandemic.
This precedent must be broken.
There are concrete steps that the University must take to protect students in the event of another, similar protest. If another protest of the same nature as the anti-vaccine mandate protest is to occur on campus, safety regulations, such as the enforcement of wearing masks, proof of vaccination or presenting a negative COVID-19 test must be followed by all attendees.
A good example of what future protests should look like is the recent climate strike hosted at the Staller Steps on Sept. 24. The protest was small, with about two dozen socially distanced and mask-wearing attendees. Those present were mostly resident students, who are already mandated to be vaccinated by the University, meaning there was little risk of spreading the virus, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s outdoor event guidelines.
The message of this strike was clear, the protesters were organized and safety regulations were important to those present. As a result, the event was not a potential hotspot for COVID-19. This is why the recent climate strike should be a model for protests on campus in the future.
A protest should be a forum for open discussion and a place where views can be expressed freely, in accordance with the First Amendment. However, any gathering should still prioritize the health and safety of people and institutions.
Overall, the health of students and faculty must be the first priority when it comes to events on campus, especially controversial protests. When prioritizing the First Amendment, Stony Brook University must also ensure that regulations put in place to protect public health are strictly followed, no matter who is protesting.