ACLU of Florida Questions Whether FAU is Retaliating against Students Who Protested Private Prison Stadium Name
Day after naming rights deal cancelled, 7 students investigated for alleged violation of code of conduct at demonstration two weeks prior in which a student was reportedly struck by FAU president's car
April 5, 2013
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BOCA RATON - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida today defended several Florida Atlantic University (FAU) students who are facing what appear to be retaliatory proceedings for their participation in a peaceful protest against the now-cancelled deal to name the university's football stadium for GEO Group, a private prison operator with a history of human rights abuses. The seven students, investigated in response to allegations made by an unnamed complainant of possible violations of the Student Code of Conduct, include a student who alleges she was struck by FAU President Saunders's car as she was leaving the site of the protest, and the six other students who voluntarily submitted sworn witness statements to the FAU police department (FAUPD) at the scene of the incident.
On March 22nd, a group of students organized a peaceful demonstration at FAU's Jupiter campus as FAU president Mary Jane Saunders was leaving a meeting. The students were holding signs requesting a meeting with President Saunders about the stadium deal which student protestors had nicknamed "Owlcatraz." According to a police report, the mirror of President Saunders's car struck a student as she was driving away from the site of the protest. The student struck by President Saunders' car filed a police report alleging that although the collision caused only minor injuries, the President nevertheless drove away without stopping to render aid. Six other students participating in the demonstration submitted sworn witness statements similarly describing the events of the day.
The seven students who made statements to the FAUPD– and no others - received notice on April 2nd, the very morning after it was announced that the $6 million stadium deal which they were demonstrating against was cancelled and nearly two weeks after the incident, that they were each to attend "Investigative Conferences" today, April 5th. The meetings were scheduled because the Dean of Students had received a complaint that the students' involvement in the protest may have violated the student code of conduct.
"The University shouldn't be intimidating these students, it should be thanking them for sparing the university from embarrassment," stated Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. "The lesson that the University seems to be sending students is, ‘think twice before filing a complaint against a high-level university official.' We think the lesson they should be sending is ‘thank you." Their tireless use of their First Amendment rights has protected the university from an embarrassing entanglement with a human rights violator.'"
The ACLU of Florida, which had previously urged President Saunders to reject the GEO Group's effort to whitewash its public image through the stadium naming deal and had supported the efforts of students and faculty members to use their First Amendment rights to protest the planned deal, is now working with the students who are being subjected to possible disciplinary action.
"The timing of the investigations and the fact that they are being undertaken against those who gave sworn statements about President Saunders' actions appears to be initiated by an administration smarting from losing the deal that the students were protesting," stated ACLU of Florida staff attorney Julie Ebenstein, who served as advisor to some of the students during today's investigative conferences. "In the past few weeks, FAU's executive leadership has already come under self-inflicted scrutiny. We hope they have the wisdom to steer clear this time, respect that their students' exercise of their freedom of speech successfully muted a prison-for-profit company's PR campaign, and let the students get back to their studies."
In addition to advising the students during the conferences, the ACLU of Florida also sent a letter today to Dr. Corey A. King, the University's Associate Vice President and Dean of Students expressing concern about the unusual nature of the university's Code of Conduct investigation, and urging the university not to punish the students for participating in the protest or for filing the complaint against the University President for leaving the scene of the automobile accident.
From the letter:
The matter of the GEO Group's sponsorship of FAU athletic stadium is now closed. We hope that students can get back to studying for their exams and pursuing their education without the looming threat of disciplinary action by the University. The students' protest was peaceful, arose out of their sincere commitment to the university, and took the form of seeking an academic discussion with President Saunders. Similarly, their decisions to file a police report and provide statements to the FAUPD were motivated by a sincere belief that the actions they witnessed President Saunders take on March 22 were unlawful.
We hope that you will not choose to punish any of these seven students for their protest activities or for reporting what they believed to be official wrongdoing to the FAUPD, and that you will dismiss the complaint without filing charges.
A copy of the letter is available here: http://aclufl.org/resources/fau-discipline-letter/
More information about the ACLU of Florida's opposition to the proposed GEO Group deal is available here: http://aclufl.org/?p=3034