Columbia Protesters Face Penalties (Perhaps)

In pre-Christmas statement, university officials say students may undergo discipline for disrupting speech -- but offer no details, citing privacy law.
December 27, 2006

If Columbia University officials hoped that a statement released into the pre-Christmas news vacuum would silence weeks of criticism over their response to an October melee during a campus speech, they are likely to be disappointed. Many of the same editorial writers and commentators who had accused the university of doing too little to punish the students and others who disrupted the speech by Jim Gilchrist, founder of the ant-illegal-immigration Minuteman Project, dismissed the latest statement as inadequate.

On October 4, a group of students and non-students interrupted the speech by the founder of the Minuteman group, which aggressively (and, depending on who you listen to, violently) favors tougher enforcement of immigration laws. The university’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, a renowned Constitutional scholar, issued a statement shortly after the incident occurred that condemned the disruption as an attack on the “sacrosanct and inviolable” principle that no speaker should be silenced. But he and the university have since been criticized, from the left and right, for their perceived failure to punish the protesters and to invite Gilchrist back to the university’s New York City campus.

“It's time for President Lee Bollinger to stop being silent and step up to denounce and investigate -- then to arrest, suspend, and sanction, without regard to political correctness,” the Minuteman Project said in a statement in late October. “He should follow that with a personal invitation to the Minuteman Project to return to Columbia. Only then can Columbia again be considered a real university. Until that happens, supporters, donors, alumni, and entering students are well advised to 'steer clear' of this intolerant school.”

The “President’s Update on Campus Speech Issues,” released last Friday by Bollinger, seeks to portray Columbia officials as having taken the breach of free speech seriously. In the weeks since the incident, Bollinger noted, the university has reorganized how it governs student groups and altered its procedures for student-sponsored events and outside speakers.

The statement also says that after a review of its security procedures at student events, Columbia will, going forward, have “additional security measures in place…. It is, of course, unfortunate that such protective measures are necessary in a campus environment that depends on openness and human connection. Nevertheless, we must strike the balance between an environment that fosters self-regulation of behavior by young adults and the visible security presence necessary to ensure the safety of all participants at student sponsored events.”

In perhaps the most watched response of all, Bollinger said that the university was charging some students with violating rules during the incident. Citing the process laid out in Columbia’s Rules of University Conduct, Bollinger said that university officials had notified “a number of Columbia students that they will be subject to discipline for having violated” those rules. (The statement also says that some non-students who were involved in the protest will be barred from the campus.)

In an e-mail message after the statement was released, a Columbia spokesman clarified that no students had yet been disciplined. “These students now face ‘dean's discipline,’ " said Robert Hornsby, director of media relations. “They will be required to each meet individually with the dean of their school or college, who will review the charge(s), evaluate the evidence against the student, hear the student's response and then determine if a sanction is warranted or not. Sanctions for first-time violators are disciplinary warning or censure; sanctions for repeat violators include suspension or dismissal.”

Bollinger’s statement said that the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, “strictly prohibits the university from divulging details of disciplinary proceedings, including the identities of participants.”  He added: “That may feel unsatisfactory to some who would like to see a public announcement of specific punishments, but we must adhere to federal law in these matters of student privacy.”

Columbia’s response and lack of detail did strike several editorial writers and student critics as unsatisfactory, and some higher education legal experts challenged Columbia officials’ argument that the federal privacy law precluded them from saying now how many students are facing punishments and what they are being charged with, and from eventually revealing, in ways that do not identify individual students, what punishments the wrongdoers have received.

“There is nothing precluding Columbia from saying what punishments are meted out, so that students can understand that there are severe penalties, or penalties period, for their actions,” said Sheldon E. Steinbach, a lawyer in the higher education practice at Dow Lohnes.

By not being more forthcoming, Steinbach said, Columbia “loses a teachable moment for the rest of the campus. When people know there are student disciplinary procedures being conducted, and the results come out, it serves as a deterrent and a warning to others who would engage in similar behavior.” 


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