When One Student Acts Out, All Could Be Punished

Under potential new policy, student groups at the University of Minnesota could be held responsible if their individual members break the rules. Critics see problems in the potential for collective punishment.

February 9, 2018
 
Protesters rally against a potential University of Minnesota policy imposing collective punishment.

A move by the University of Minnesota to possibly hold an entire student group accountable if a single member breaks institutional rules has confused the campus, with students and professors concerned that the new policy could stifle free expression.

The university’s Board of Regents is poised to vote today on new language (see page 235) in the student code of conduct. This would allow the institution to punish a student organization if it “directed, sponsored or endorsed” a prohibited activity. (UPDATE: Amid criticism of the proposal, the board has postponed its vote.)

A whole group could also be held responsible if its officers “knew or reasonably should have known” that a group member was going to violate the conduct code at a group event, and the leaders didn’t take steps to stop that person from doing so.

This shift is deeply unpopular among some faculty members and students to the point that they organized a demonstration against it Thursday. The impetus behind the policy change is unknown and the regents have not publicly discussed it at length.

Students, professors and other staffers gathered on the steps of the Coffman Memorial Union, the student union, on Thursday evening, organized in part by Mary Pogatshnik, a senior teaching specialist in the department of Spanish and Portuguese.

Pogatshnik, who has worked at the university since 2001, described a continuous rocky relationship between the campus faculty members and the administration and regents, who, Pogatshnik said, do not represent the interests of the students and actively work to silence dissenting voices.

She said she was frustrated that in no way did the regents appear to reach out to anyone to discuss this policy.

“They are terribly dysfunctional, with very little communication,” Pogatshnik said. “This incident is a perfect example of a lack of articulation, a lack of thoughtfulness.”

Her worst-case scenario: a student in an organization engages in a disruptive protest, or shouts down a speaker, and the entire group is disciplined, which could lead to students being scared to speak out, Pogatshnik said. All types of student groups -- fraternities, sports teams -- should be fearful, she said.

She cited a case in 2016, when six students were arrested for disrupting a Board of Regents meeting and charged with unlawful assembly. They were protesting a potential tuition increase, which the regents approved.

“They are basically moving toward criminalizing dissent,” Pogatshnik said.

In the common cases on campus -- fraternity and sorority hazing, for instance -- some members of the organization violate the rules and others do not. To critics of the new policy, this appears to be collective punishment, at least in cases where students aren't behaving in ways consistent with the group's leaders.

Student organizations have also told the regents they don’t agree with the policy.

In a letter submitted to the Board of Regents, six student groups said that the change would have “significant negative consequences” and that organizations policing their members is “unreasonable.”

“The vagueness of the policy itself -- and the potential implementation of it on our student organizations -- raises the serious question of how this policy change will unreasonably hold student groups responsible for individual actions of our student membership,” they wrote.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties watchdog group, was concerned by the new language, said Samantha Harris, a lawyer and FIRE’s director of speech code research.

Harris said she is skeptical overall of policies that impose a collective liability on a student group and was unclear on why the policy change was needed, particularly considering the old language wasn’t overly broad.

“I think it will be more vulnerable to abuse,” Harris said of the potential new rule.

She said she was unsure if a particular incident motivated the regents. In the past several years, Minnesota has grappled with several scandals involving sexual assault by college athletes, including the 2016 suspensions of 10 football players for alleged sexual misconduct and last month's suspension of a basketball player following an investigation into whether he sexually assaulted a woman in his dormitory.

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