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As protests go, you couldn’t beat the choreography. At about 15 minutes to 4 o’clock on a cloudless, sunny Wednesday afternoon on the campus of Gallaudet University, students, faculty, and activists assembled on the front steps of the school’s chapel. The purpose was to deliver the daily message to the press, which, at that moment, outnumbered the group gathered on the steps. It wasn’t long, however, before waves of students began massing in front of the chapel, watching as an interpreter relayed the group’s remarks. At center was an impassioned young man named Andy Lange, the president of the Gallaudet alumni association. “The protests will continue,” Lange signed. “We will not stop until we get Gallaudet back.” To say that beyond the press event that day the campus was markedly quiet might sound insulting, as this is a school for the hearing-impaired. But the truth was, other than the smattering of students blockading each of the school’s entrances, the campus seemed almost deserted. (Even the well-documented “tent city” where students have been sleeping was more a village, with only about 30 tents in evidence.) Classes were said to be in session, but you couldn’t tell it from the lack of activity. The appearance was of an institution paralyzed, trapped between conflicting impulses. So committed are the protesters to the ouster of incoming President Jane Fernandes that it is difficult to imagine life returning to normal anytime soon. And so determined is the administration not to allow a relative handful of the student population to dictate policy that the only possible solution may involve Fernandes simply walking away. Meanwhile, the scene as it stands now is so placid, so seemingly benign, that it’s hard to take outgoing President I. King Jordan at his word when he calls the protesters a “mob” that is holding “the university hostage to their demands,” as he did in a statement last week. Yet you cannot escape the feeling as you walk past one of the barricades that you are entering the grounds solely at the discretion of the protesters. And that if this were anything more than a group of passionate students trying to inject themselves into a policy debate, law enforcement would be much less reluctant to sweep in and dislodge them once and for all. (Transplant the situation in today’s nervous environment and imagine the police response if another group of people cut off access to a bank or a stadium in similar fashion.) But the administration has tried the hard line already, permitting the Metropolitan Police Department to arrest more than 130 students on Oct. 13. But this isn’t the 1960s, and no one wants to haul a bunch of these kids to jail. So the students were freed almost immediately, and the arrests became a point of pride. So much so that celebratory T-shirts were created and group photos were taken to memorialize the day. What now, then, for Gallaudet? It’s these kinds of times, actually, when the rule of law fails. As anyone who’s been a victim of crime, or who has won a lawsuit, can tell you, the law is only useful when it can be fully implemented. You can’t just win a judgment; you have to execute it, too. For Jordan and Fernandes, the only tool that the law gives them now is a blunt instrument. Whether to use it is their unenviable choice. The absence of riot police — or any law enforcement, for that matter — leaves a conflict that, last week, was largely rhetorical. But that has its batons and body armor as well. From the carefully manufactured press events to the legion of bloggers on both sides of the debate to a university professor blasting students for not living up to the nonviolent principles of Martin Luther King Jr., it’s been hearts and minds, hearts and minds, all the time. This being Gallaudet and a center of deaf culture, even that battle has its unique flash points. One of the key issues has been free access to interpreters. The protesters have accused the administration of denying them the ability to freely communicate with the hearing population, i.e., the media. “Gallaudet is cutting off our voice to the world,” student LaToya Plummer said last week. At the Wednesday press conference, Donalda Ammons, a faculty member, announced that a deal had been struck with Sorenson Communications, a maker of equipment to help people with disabilities, to provide VP-100s and VP-200s, videophones that would help students contact the media. Her statement brought excited cheers from the crowd. Of course, at some point lawyers will get involved. They always do. The Gallaudet Board of Trustees has already recruited Eric Holder Jr., the Covington & Burling partner and former deputy attorney general, to investigate the actions of campus police earlier this month when students disrupted a Board of Trustees meeting. Holder will make his report public when completed. And last week, Ryan Commerson, a graduate student and one of the leaders of the protest, said that volunteer attorneys had stepped in to represent the arrested students and that all legal costs would be covered by “private investors.” But before any of this lands in court, the escalating fight for public opinion will continue. And although the issues in the conflict are critically important to the Gallaudet community, it’s hard sometimes to sympathize when one of the bones of contention is whether homecoming will be canceled and whether the football game will be held. “Uh, who are you playing?” one reporter at the press conference asked sheepishly. It was a welcome reminder that this isn’t the 1960s and Gallaudet is not Berkeley, Kent State, or any protest-scarred campus of that time. What that means is that there’s still time for both sides to find a way out of this mess.
James Oliphant is editor in chief of Legal Times . His column runs twice a month.

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