University of Miami Disciplines Student Group Protesting Overtown Project for Writing With Chalk on Sidewalk

The University of Miami is constructing a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art Life Science and Technology Park in the heart of the historically impoverished Overtown neighborhood near downtown Miami. But the project has been wrought with controversy. Neighborhood activists claim the project, built with public funding because it would create jobs, has not put enough area residents to work.

Liberal-leaning University of Miami group Students Towards a New Democracy (S.T.A.N.D.) has taken up the cause, but UM has allegedly begun disciplinary action against the group after members used chalk to write protest messages on the school's sidewalks.

"As an institution of higher learning, we expect the University of Miami to promote civic engagement, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly; these values are critical for democracy," reads a message posted on the group's Facebook page.

"However, instead of encouraging these ideals on campus and welcoming open dialogue, our university has been suppressing the voices of Overtown leaders, residents, and their supporters. A small group of administrators has made swift and decisive moves to quickly eliminate Overtown's voice on campus. They try to block our freedom of assembly, block student emails addresses, take down innocent flyers, mark related emails as spam, and have tried to criminalize messages written in children's sidewalk chalk. Recently, an Overtown supporter was interrogated by the police, given an official trespassing warning, and banned from visiting campus for two years as a result of his participation in the aforementioned activities."

​Group members claim other student groups routinely write messages in chalk and that no other group has ever been charged with vandalism for similar actions.

"I've used chalk for four years and never had anyone tell me it was wrong. I have photographic evidence of other students using it," S.T.A.N.D. member Stephanie Sandhu tells the Florida Independent.

The group also claims it has been targeted and censored by the university in the past, though the school has commented only that no student organization has been forced to disband so far this year. The school has a policy of not commenting on individual cases.

In response, the group held a "Stop Censoring Overtown" rally in the middle of campus this afternoon.

UM has faced a fair amount of criticism over the Life Sciences and Technology Park. The school claims that 34 percent of the work force comes from within several zip codes around the project, but critics claim only one of those zip codes actually covers Overtown. Meanwhile, the school has publicized the area's poverty in order to gain public funding (through tax credits and loans) by promising to hire local residents. However, the school has yet to implement a promised job-training program in the area.

Critics also worry that the structure, which will include laboratories and office space, will cause rents to rise in the area, thereby pushing out residents.

Phase one of construction is expected to be completed later this year.

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