In Letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor, ACLU Opposes Suppression of Pro-Palestinian Student Protest

May 7, 2002 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO – The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the University of California at Berkeley’s ACLU chapter today sent a letter to the University’s Chancellor expressing serious concerns about the school’s threat to suspend for an entire year 41 pro-Palestinian student protestors who were arrested for trespass during a sit-in.

“The University has overstepped its bounds,” said Dan Komarek, External Vice President of the Berkeley Campus ACLU. “Its actions threaten the tradition of free speech that this campus is so famous for.”

The 41 students were arrested on April 9 by campus police for trespass during a sit-in that followed a rally organized by the student group, Students for Justice in Palestine. If suspended, the students will be banned from campus for the duration of their suspension.

In addition to threatening to suspend the 41 protestors, the University also suspended the group, Students for Justice in Palestine, an action that prohibited the group from holding or advertising activities on campus. The University has since rescinded the interim suspension of the group.

“The University’s reaction to the sit-in has a chilling effect on the students’ right to free speech, especially at a time when freedom of expression is so critical to our democracy,” said Alan Schlosser, Legal Director of the ACLU of Northern California. “Expressing ideas that are controversial and unpopular must be vigilantly protected. The important First Amendment principles at stake do not permit administrative action that appears to be unprecedented and to make an example of this controversial group.”

To letter sent to Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl follows.

May 7, 2002

Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl
Office of the Chancellor
200 California Hall #1500
Berkeley, CA 94720-1500
FAX: (510) 643-5499

Dear Chancellor Berdahl:

On behalf of the Berkeley American Civil Liberties Union (Berkeley ACLU) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLUNC), we wish to express our concerns regarding the University’s reaction to the sit-in at Wheeler Hall on April 9th, 2002. While we certainly affirm the importance of the academic core mission of the University and its obligation to provide an environment conducive to the educational enrichment of its students, we believe that the University’s reaction to the student group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the 41 individual students arrested at Wheeler Hall will have chilling effects on freedom of speech and association on the UC Berkeley campus. While we understand that the University has rescinded its earlier interim suspension of the SJP, we feel that further steps must be taken to permit free speech to be exercised on this issue without the threat of an excessive response from the University.

The University must recognize that, whether intended or not, the severity of its actions has been interpreted by many in both the campus and general communities as specifically targeted at a group whose message is extremely controversial and quite unpopular with many people in this country. Other sit-ins have taken place on campus in recent years that have disrupted classes, and to the best of our knowledge no student group ever lost official recognition prior to a hearing and no students were threatened with year-long suspensions in those cases. We certainly welcome any clarification on this point if you believe we are mistaken. When the University does not treat the current situation the same way it has treated other similar situations in the past, students, faculty, and community members begin to legitimately question the impartiality and fairness of the University, and this threatens their right to participate in open dialogue on campus without fear of unfair reprisal.

In particular, we are greatly disturbed by the severity of the potential punishments of each of the 41 students charged with violations of the student code of conduct. While “”disruption of teaching”” (CSC III.A.7) may legitimately lead to disciplinary actions, the possibility of suspension for an entire year from the campus for each student involved is extreme. Perhaps the actions of protesters in Wheeler Hall on April 9th were particularly disruptive to teaching; only a fair investigation and hearing will tell. But based on our knowledge of the situation and what the University has charged the students with so far, we believe the threat of a year’s suspension is excessive. We therefore urge you to publicly disavow the threat of punishment for each of the 41 students to match the punishments of students involved in similar activities in the past.

We are quite encouraged to see that yesterday the University ended the interim suspension of Student’s for Justice in Palestine and reinstated its official student group status, but we want to state clearly our belief that the initial imposition of the interim suspension, which took place prior to any hearing at which the group would have the chance to defend itself, was highly improper. The Code of Student Conduct provides for the implementation of interim suspension of a student or student group only to prevent action that threatens the “”health or safety”” of any individual or comprises “”other disruptive activity incompatible with the orderly operation of the campus”” (CSC.VII.A). The University publicly declared that the only activities prohibited to SJP by its interim suspension were the reservation of University facilities and tabling on Sproul Plaza. We fail to see how either of these activities could present any sort of substantial threat to the “”orderly operation”” of the campus, and we therefore question the validity of the suspension in fulfilling its supposed purpose.

We also believe that the terms of the interim suspension were overbroad. While, as stated earlier, the University has publicly affirmed that the only activities prohibited by the interim suspension were the reservation of University facilities for events and tabling on Sproul Plaza, the official notice of the suspension clearly lists “”holding or advertising activities on campus”” as one of the group’s suspended “”privileges.”” We do not believe the First Amendment permits the University to bar a group of students from even advertising any activities on campus. Having done so without even a semblance of due process only compounded this infringement of constitutional rights.

Once again, we fully support the University’s goal of upholding its academic core mission to guarantee the right to an education to all its students. But the University’s reaction to this particular situation was, to our knowledge, unprecedented. At a time when the situation in the Middle East holds such vital and emotional importance to so many members of the campus community, the chilling effect on free speech must be dissipated. The important First Amendment principles at stake do not permit administrative actions that try to make an example of this controversial organization and its supporters. Thus, we call on you to take additional steps by disavowing the threat of year-long suspensions for each of the individual students involved and by treating them as other students involved in similar activities in the past have been treated. We look forward to your response regarding these matters.

Very truly yours,

Lotus Yu, Co-President Berkeley ACLU

Alan Schlosser, Legal Director ACLU of Northern California

Mark Schlosberg, Police Practices Policy Director ACLU of Northern California

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