When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi spoke at Meredith College last week, it was an opportunity for anti-war activists to express their dissatisfaction about the Democrats’ refusal to initiate impeachment proceedings against President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

However, Meredith officials would have none of it, squelching protesters and choosing instead to shield Pelosi from criticism like a precious butterfly in a glass jar. More troubling, though, is Meredith’s “free speech” policy, which mocks the Constitution by marginalizing dissent.

First, a recap: According to demonstrators, who aren’t Meredith students, several days before Pelosi’s visit, a member of N.C. Peace Action phoned her office, campus police and Meredith President Maureen Hartford to discuss their plans to carry signs and distribute leaflets at the event. Those calls were not returned. When protesters arrived on campus with their materials, they were corralled into a “free speech zone” (hello, George Orwell!), where demonstrators said they couldn’t be seen. Campus police also confiscated protesters’ leaflets after they distributed them.

Inside the auditorium, another protester passing out pamphlets after Pelosi’s speech was ordered by campus police to leave Meredith or be arrested.

Meredith is a private institution and thus, even if it smacks of censorship, not obligated to allow interlopers on campus. Nonetheless, students’ free speech rights at the women’s college also are sharply curbed. According to a college spokeswoman, Meredith doesn’t allow the distribution of pamphlets or leaflets not approved by the administration. This begs the question: What are the chances a student with a beef about the administration would receive approval for a leaflet criticizing it?

Moreover, Meredith’s “demonstration policy” encourages students to complain through “established channels,” such as student government. However, if the complaint is about those very channels, it is unlikely that dissenters will be heard.

Prospective student protesters must fill out a form with their organization’s name, the purpose of their demonstration and the target audienceand secure two Student Affairs administrators’ signatures at least 48 hours before the event.

Ah, the paper trail: It’s an excellent strategy for Meredith officials to weed out “troublemakers.” And if students want to protest a late-breaking issue, they’re out of luck.

A tenet of Meredith’s demonstration policy is to prohibit students from “disrupting the peace.” Yet that term is undefined. Open to interpretation, the definition could change with the whims of the administration.

Civil disobedience has a long and proud history, and entails working outside the system. Unfortunately, Meredith students are being herded like cattle into a system that respects neither that history nor the Constitution.