Raja Abdulrahim
The Los Angeles Times
June 21, 2010 - 12:00am

UC Irvine's recent decision to recommend suspension of a Muslim student group for its alleged role in disrupting an Israeli diplomat's speech has focused attention on the largely hidden world of student discipline and group punishment on college campuses.

The 1-year suspension, which the group is appealing, has raised questions about whether a university should penalize only individual students for behavior that violates rules of conduct, or if collective punishment is sometimes appropriate. And it has triggered debate about whether political pressure was a factor in the case.

The University of California has a long and difficult history of grappling with student protests, dating back to the tumultuous 1960s Free Speech Movement. Still, even as student rallies over higher fees have rocked UC campuses this year, it remains rare for a campus to sanction an entire student group in a civil disobedience case, experts say.

More commonly, student organizations such as fraternities are disciplined for alcohol or hazing abuses, and individual students are sanctioned for acts ranging from cheating to harassment.

"Suspension of any group or individual is always the last place you want to go. But if the disruption was severe enough, that's the appropriate action," said W. Scott Lewis, president of the Assn. for Student Conduct Administration, which represents about 700 colleges and universities nationwide.

He and others emphasized that schools must be consistent and fair in disciplining students and avoid any impression of being pressured into punitive action. "As an institution, particularly as a public institution, you can't act arbitrarily and capriciously. … You can't say the Young Republicans can stay on campus but the Young Democrats can't," added Lewis, who is associate general counsel for Saint Mary's College in Indiana.

In the UC Irvine incident, the Muslim Student Union was sanctioned for allegedly planning the protest, in which students repeatedly interrupted Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren as he tried to deliver a speech on campus, and then denying its official involvement.

Supporters of the students contend that longstanding complaints about the Muslim Student Union from politicians and off-campus Jewish groups played a role in the group's suspension, and in the arrests of eight UC Irvine and three UC Riverside students that day.

"I think the university is caving in to the external pressure," said Reem Salahi, attorney for the student group. No criminal charges have been filed, but the 11 students face campus disciplinary reviews.

Salahi said the Irvine campus has been inconsistent in its response to such incidents, including a 2005 speech by former Bush administration attorney John C. Yoo. Protesters heckled and interrupted Yoo over his controversial Justice Department memos on torture and terrorism suspects. UC Irvine police escorted the demonstrators outside but no one was arrested, according to news reports, and campus officials said the students did not face sanctions.

University officials say the difference this time lies in the Muslim group's alleged planning of its Feb. 8 activities, and its later denial. According to a disciplinary report released last week, the suspension was based on evidence in the organization's e-mails and meeting minutes, showing that members planned to shout down the Israeli envoy. The group's subsequent denials of involvement added greatly to the discipline, UC Irvine spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon said.

Leaders of the Jewish Federation of Orange County said they had learned from other UC Irvine students that a disruption was planned and sent e-mails warning about the protest. Campus officials then cautioned the Muslim Student Union not to disrupt the speech, Lawhon said. The group's leaders responded that they were not planning anything but could not control what individuals did, she said.

With disciplinary decisions still pending, members of the Muslim group would not comment about the events. But their attorney said that there was "significant disagreement" within the organization before the Oren protest and that the group did not endorse it.

Lawhon declined to comment on whether outside pressure played a role in the recommendation to suspend the group, but she emphasized that the decision was made "because they were clearly planning to violate university policy and that's that." She said the sanction would not affect individual students' access to facilities for religious activities.

At least one free speech advocate said UC Irvine appeared to have based its decision on the case's merits, not any political pressure. "The university was free to make its own decision because no matter what it decided to do, it would receive both blame and praise," said Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which protects students' religious and free speech rights.

At UC headquarters in Oakland, student affairs officials estimated that each of the system's nine undergraduate campuses suspends at least one student group each year, usually for alcohol-related incidents or other risky behavior. But at UC campuses and elsewhere, cases involving student protests provide no clear disciplinary patterns and are often shrouded by federal privacy rules.

For example, demonstrations over UC fee increases this year led to arrests as well as campus disciplinary reviews. And three UC students faced sanctions in connection with vandalism of the UC Berkeley chancellor's house during a December protest. Supporters say two were put on campus probation and the other cleared, and no criminal charges were filed. Officials said no organization faced discipline, mainly because the groups involved were not formally affiliated with UC.

Charging students both as individuals and as part of a group is unfair because information gathered in one investigation could be used in the other and in criminal prosecution, said Carmen Comsti, a leader of the Campus Capital Rights Project, a group of law students who helped defend the UC Berkeley protesters. Comsti says UC conduct rules are too vague, inconsistently enforced and favor the institution over students' rights.

One much-publicized incident occurred at UC Berkeley in 2002 when the Students for Justice in Palestine was suspended from campus privileges for about a month after its members occupied a classroom building during an anti- Israel protest. In connection with the incident, 41 students faced various conduct violations.

Jonathan Poullard, UC Berkeley's dean of students, said colleges are allowed broad discretion in misconduct cases and typically take students' ages, disciplinary records and other factors into account. Decisions also vary by campus, he said, noting that UC Berkeley, which has seen frequent protests over 45 years, "probably has a higher threshold and tolerance level."


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