Student Protesters Face Hearings
Though criminal charges against 32 campus protesters were settled three months ago, UC Berkeley is set to proceed this week with hearings to determine if the pro-Palestinian students violated conduct codes by occupying a building and disrupting class.
Members of Students for Justice in Palestine last April organized a rally on Holocaust Memorial Day at Sproul Plaza, the epicenter of much of the mid-1960s Free Speech Movement. But instead of taking the traditional path down Telegraph Avenue, the protesters marched to and occupied nearby Wheeler Hall, where police arrested 78 people -- 41 of them students -- who allegedly refused to leave. Students used bullhorns and created such havoc that classes and midterm exams in the lecture hall had to be canceled, university officials said.
Officials say that the protesters ignored repeated warnings not to enter Wheeler Hall, and that pressing charges is necessary to ensure that the university’s academic mission remains uncompromised.
“No matter how noble a cause may be, no group has the right to infringe on the rights of other students to pursue their education,” said John Cummins, assistant chancellor.
Alameda County prosecutors had considered bringing a criminal case against the students, but issued a “finding of factual innocence” after a settlement was reached in June, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Stuart Hing. “I felt we could prove [the case], but in the interests of justice this didn’t seem worth it,” he said. The students paid a collective fine of $3,000 and the arrests were removed from their records.
The day those charges were dropped, the university launched student code of conduct proceedings against the students, nine of whom did not contest the charges and subsequently settled their cases.
The remaining students assert that the university is being pressured to take action beyond the criminal court fines. They say officials have received a barrage of letters and complaints from students, parents, teachers and angry benefactors threatening to revoke future donations unless the university convenes the disciplinary panels.
“If prosecution is not taken, I guarantee none of my family’s money will go to your alumni fund,” reads one of about 100 letters obtained by a student attorney’s public-records request. “I support the ability of the universities to teach, not to allow such disruptions.” Another benefactor writes: “We have both been annual contributors to a variety of fund-raising drives on campus. We will make no further contributions until we see a radical change in the attitudes and actions of your administration toward the Jewish students and the Palestinian faculty and persons who disrupt the education process in the name of the Palestinian cause.”
University spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said it is customary for the university to receive letters on divisive issues. She said the university has received more than 1,000 letters or e-mails in support of the pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and expressed confidence that the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and the Office of Student Life would proceed with the student conduct hearings in an unbiased fashion. “I doubt that they’re aware of any of those letters. They are truly pursuing these cases as a violation of student conduct.”
On June 7, the university issued notice to the “Wheeler 32,” charging them with unauthorized entry or use of university property, obstruction or disruption of teaching and disturbing the peace. Sanctions could range from written warnings to expulsion.
The first proceedings began Sept. 30 against student Roberto Hernandez, but were postponed when his lawyers asked an Alameda County judge to block the use of certain evidence. The judge denied the request on Oct. 30, and the code hearing was scheduled to resume Wednesday. Hernandez, an undergraduate at the time of the protest, faces additional charges of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.
The university is withholding his diploma and barring him from registering for his doctoral classes, pending the outcome of the disciplinary hearing.
Fifteen National Lawyers Guild pro-bono attorneys are leading the students’ defense. “What’s unusual is how hard the university is pushing this. It really seems to us that the harshness is bound to the content of the students’ message,” said Dan Siegel, one of the students’ attorneys.
The hearings come at a time of escalating violence in the Middle East. Students at Princeton, Harvard and scores of other campuses have called on their schools to divest holdings in companies that do business with Israel.
For Mike Froehlich, an SJP member and Boalt Hall School of Law student helping the students’ defense, free speech is exactly what makes the university the right venue for debate. “Student protests are always at the vanguard of political justice,” he said. “Our democracy, our society depends on speaking out.”