Critics: U of M wants to punish student groups for campus protests

Anthony Souffle Star Tribune

Anthony Souffle Star Tribune

A vote to change the way University of Minnesota student groups are held accountable for their members' actions was scheduled for Friday, but was postponed after blowback from students and faculty.

Currently, student groups can be held responsible for member misbehavior if the student group "sponsored, organized, or otherwise endorsed the conduct." The proposed change would make the group liable if it failed to prevent an offense by a member it should have reasonably known about.

A small group of students and faculty protested the changes on Thursday night outside of Coffman Memorial Union on the University’s East Bank campus, and on Friday morning during the Regent’s monthly meeting.

The controversy lies in the interpretation of the change, and depends on who is interpreting it.

The students’ and faculty’s concerns stemmed from the way the changes would interact with disciplinary offense under the conduct code. Specifically, one offense: "disruptive behavior," which consists of multiple descriptions that some say would ban protests or demonstrations. The definition covers any “demonstration that disrupts the normal operations of the University,” and “leading or inciting others to disrupt scheduled or normal activities.”

Jose Manuel, a Ph.D. candidate in gender, women, and sexuality studies and a member of Differences Organized, a coalition of groups that organized the protests, said the board is being deceptive.

“They’re wanting the public to think that they’re targeting fraternity members … but in reality [what] these changes actually do is criminalize [peaceful protest]," he said.

University sources say the the shift is strictly about clarifying language, though critics say it simply makes it easier to punish entire groups for protests.

“This was actually intended to protect student organization for being held accountable for the acts of individual members,” said Regent Darrin Rosha.

Rosha said discussions at the onset of the policy change had nothing to do with free speech, and the board discussed other issues pertaining to the code. The change stems from issues where members of student organizations were misusing alcohol and minor consumption was involved.

“Frankly, we never discussed free speech issues,” he said.

In a statement, the university said it requested the Board of Regents, the University’s governing body, to delay the vote.

“The University community has provided many comments regarding the proposed amendment to student group responsibility language in the Student Conduct Code. To provide more time to consider these comments and to consult faculty governance and student leadership, the University has requested that its Board of Regents postpone its vote on the proposed amendment,” the statement read.

Jose Manuel says activists are not optimistic for how the Board of Regents will address the policies in response to the outcry.

“We’ve known for the last couple of years that they have … deliberately created a campus climate to suppress student voices,” he said, and referred to past episodes where demonstrators were arrested.

Regent Michael Hsu said he's never been in support of the underlying policy, which he says can be unfairly applied to greek organizations, for example, which are punished for one person's misconduct. “I never thought it was a necessary part of the student conduct code,” he said. “I don’t think it's productive to shut down an entire group.” Hsu thinks adding the new language is a "step forward," though, and would support it.

Hsu said the decision to postpone Friday's vote was made before the protesting took place.

Emma Olson, a third-year graduate student and president of the Public Affairs Student Association, says the policy stifles speech, and is unreasonable for large groups like hers, which has over 400 members.

Things like "rioting" or "protesting" are only loosely defined in the existing conduct code, Olson said, and she questioned the motive behind the policy. She described it as an attempt to squash social movements on campus.

“At best, I think it's fishy,” she said. “At worst it's deliberate.”

Olson has compiled a letter signed by various professional and graduate student organizations which outlined these concerns to the Board of Regents. Groups include the MBA Association, Humphrey Students of Color Association, and the School of Dentistry Council of Students.

Samantha Harris, a vice president with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates for First Amendment rights on university campuses, says the proposed changes give the university "more discretion" to punish students, and raise some concerns, but don’t outright ban protest.

Harris says the key question is when the school decides to blame everyone in a group for mistakes made by just a handful of students -- or even just one. 

“How is the university going to adjudicate whether a student group's officers 'reasonably should have known' that other group members might become disorderly?”