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Student Government in Exile

July 7, 2006

It's hard to be a student leader if you've been suspended or expelled. And leaders of the student government at the State University of New York at New Paltz think that's entirely the point.

The president of the student government and his vice president (himself a former president) were suspended and expelled from the university this month, on charges that they harassed the director of residence life. The students are threatening to sue the university if the punishments are not revoked. But what may separate this incident from most is that the students videotaped the encounter with the residence life director, and the video, which they have posted online, appears to back their contention that they never endangered the college official.

The dispute started this spring after Justin Holmes and R.J. Partington III were elected president and vice president. Both of them had previously been involved in student government and had criticized the university's enforcement of drug laws. Many activists at New Paltz are involved in the movement to decriminalize certain drugs and have accused the administration there of enforcing drug laws while ignoring more pressing student safety concerns. Some students went so far this spring as to suggest that students create a militia to protect one another, but most say that they were just trying to make a point about safety priorities and did not literally plan to arm themselves. (The university has said that it has no choice but to enforce drug laws and that it takes safety seriously.)

During their campaign, Holmes and Partington accused Corinna Caracci, director of residence life, of encouraging students to vote against them (a charge she denied). After they won the election, the students expressed their anger to Caracci in a hallway discussion in which the students say that the harshest words they used were "shut up" and that involved no physical confrontation. The video they have posted appears to back that up -- and they have posted photographs as well. Caracci, in a statement filed with the university, said she felt threatened during the confrontation. "I felt like a terrorized single woman with no one to protect me," she wrote.

On the basis of her complaint, Holmes was suspended for a year and Partington was expelled.

Michael Sussman, their lawyer, is demanding that the college reinstate them and is threatening to file a suit on their behalf if that doesn't happen. Sussman said that the students were convicted by the campus judicial system despite clear evidence of their innocence and without the chance to question their accuser. In addition, he said it was highly suspect for a public university to kick out leaders of a student government that has been critical of the administration.

In an e-mail interview, Holmes said that "there is no doubt in my mind that these actions are part of a systematic campaign to intimidate and humiliate us in response to the large and growing progressive and libertarian movements on our campus."

Eric Gullickson, a spokesman for New Paltz, said that the students received full due process rights, as outlined in campus procedures. He also denied that there was any link to their punishments and their campus activism. "What's most important here is that it's not a case of an administration trying to squelch free speech or disagreeing with students' right to protest," he said.

Gullickson said that there were limits to what he could say because of federal laws governing student privacy. But he said that New Paltz had "a responsibility to maintain civility on campus."

Asked about the photos and video that appear to back the students, Gullickson said that they were "legitimate" and that he did not doubt their authenticity, but wasn't sure they fully conveyed what had happened. Asked if the photo evidence made New Paltz look bad for punishing the students, he said, "it does, and that's how they would like it to look."

 

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