Three months after being pepper sprayed or allegedly roughed up by UC Davis campus police during an Occupy demonstration, 19 students and alumni Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit claiming that their free speech and assembly rights were violated in the controversial incident.
The suit names Chancellor Linda Katehi as a defendant, along with other campus administrators and police officers. It details allegations against campus police Lt. John Pike, who the suit says sprayed the seated or crouching protesters at close range, causing pain to their eyes and faces.
The students, who contend the university did not properly screen and train campus police, are seeking financial damages and policy changes in how the UC system handles protests.
David Buscho, 22, a mechanical engineering major, had joined the Occupy camp to protest rising tuition and what he said was the privatization of UC. On Wednesday, he described how the pepper spray made him feel as if he was suffocating.
"It was extremely painful and totally disorienting," he said, adding that he had a rash for a week. But the UC Davis senior said he would not keep any monetary award from the case and instead would donate it to a scholarship or worthwhile student organization. He said he joined the lawsuit to uncover details about decisions leading to the eviction of the protest camp and the spraying.
"Our goal in this lawsuit is to ensure the university makes a clear commitment to protect free speech on campus and prevent this from ever happening again," said Michael Risher, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, which is representing the students. The case was filed in U.S. District Court's Eastern District of California and is expected to be heard in a Sacramento court.
UC Davis spokesman Barry Schiller released a statement that said the campus attorneys and students' lawyers have been talking.
"We hope those conversations continue," he said, but declined to comment any further.
The pepper spray incident attracted national attention through an online video, which the lawsuit says was reminiscent of footage showing police in the South spraying civil rights protesters with firehoses in the 1960s. A report on the matter is expected to be issued next month by a UC task force headed by former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso.
UC Davis faculty angered by the pepper spray incident had sponsored a resolution of no-confidence against Katehi, but the campus Academic Senate last week overwhelmingly defeated that measure and instead passed one that supported her while condemning the police action.