This Friday, every member of the Columbia community has a reason to show up to Havemeyer 309: For the first time in decades, the Rules of University Conduct that govern free speech and protest on campus are under review.
As they are currently written, the rules are so broad that they could very well be used to prosecute essentially any public expression of controversial speech on campus. If applied proactively, members of No Red Tape, the Title IX Team, and the Coalition Against Sexual Violence could have been prosecuted for their Stand With Survivors speak-out event on Low Plaza, under the rules' vague prohibition of "noise that substantially hinders others in their normal academic activities." Even the Columbia delegation that gathered on campus before attending the People's Climate March could have been charged under this broad rule.
Columbia Prison Divest could also have been prosecuted for delivering a petition to University President Lee Bollinger due to the prohibition against entering or remaining "in a University facility without authorization at a time after the facility has been declared closed by the University." Even the Columbia University College Republicans could have been prosecuted for placing miniature American flags in the University lawns on Sept. 11 for causing "minor property damage or loss ... on a University facility."
These groups haven't yet been prosecuted, but not because the rules are protecting them. We're lucky that the current arbiter of the rules, Vice Provost for Academic Administration Stephen Rittenberg, has often chosen not to suppress dissent on campus. However, there is no way to ensure that this trend continues once he retires at the end of the academic year.
When students are charged under these rules, they face a choice: They can either be heard under the Dean's Discipline process or they can be tried by an independent arbiter with no formal ties to the University. Under the external process, students have the right to an attorney, the right to call witnesses, and the right to a public hearing. There are rules of evidence and procedure that protect due process. On the other hand, the internal Dean's Discipline fails to afford students many of these rights. This year, the University Senate Rules Committee is debating whether to abolish the external process.
To the administration, Dean's Discipline is the more convenient of the two processes, but it denies participants their rights to bring forth witnesses or evidence in a meaningful manner. Participants also forfeit their right to have an attorney present at a hearing. To prosecute students without giving them these rights is unacceptable. The lack of transparency in Dean's Discipline—compounded by the real possibility that deans might favor sanctioning students who have directly criticized them—makes an external and independent process necessary. Unfortunately, the existence of the external process does not make it accessible—many students would be effectively forced into choosing Dean's Discipline due to the prohibitive cost of hiring a lawyer.
The external adjudication process itself also has flaws. Fortunately, the upcoming review provides an opportunity for improvement. Currently, when a student chooses to go through the external process, his or her punishment—if found guilty—must be suspension or expulsion, even if the independent arbiter believes that to be too harsh. Judicial discrepancy should instead be considered. Additionally, those who go through this external process should be assisted in obtaining a lawyer—perhaps by students and professors of the law school. Finally, witnesses used in the process shouldn't have to waive their Fifth Amendment rights.
The failure of these rules to protect rights that we consider fundamental as members of the Columbia community is not just a hypothetical scenario: It happened in the case of Ben Jealous, CC '94, and former president of the NAACP. In 1992, the ill-defined prohibition against interfering, "over a very short period of time with entrance to, exit from, passage within, or use of a University facility," was used to prosecute and eventually suspend Jealous and several other classmates. Their crime? Blockading a single entrance to Hamilton Hall for less than half an hour in protest of a University plan to turn the site of Malcolm X's assassination into a research facility.
Jealous and his classmates chose to be tried under the external process, which only allows for suspension or expulsion when a student is found guilty. Yet in his decision on this case, Judge Harold Tyler expressed his regret that he could not levy a lighter or more fitting punishment, emphasizing the need for reform of the external process.
As the University Senate's review of our campus Rules of Conduct commences, students, faculty, and administrative workers must make their voices heard in advocacy of free speech and assembly. This issue isn't partisan, nor should it be polarizing: It is paramount to the future of our university. If we don't organize now, we might lose the right to organize at all.
Jordana Narin is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in creative writing and American studies. She is the media director for the Columbia University College Democrats. This article was written on behalf of the Columbia University College Democrats.
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