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‘Wheeler 79’ hearings to start in private

David Scharfenberg
Sunday September 29, 2002

Student conduct hearings for 32 pro-Palestinian protesters who participated in the April takeover of UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall start Monday amid controversy over the public’s right to observe them. 

UC Berkeley officials are defending a decision to close the first hearing and move it away from the center of campus, arguing that the privacy measures are necessary to ensure order. 

Students activists, meanwhile, say the university is simply attempting to block the public from viewing the process. 

“They’re trying to move it away from the eyes of the campus community,” said Hoang Phan of Students for Justice in Palestine, which led the Wheeler Hall takeover last Spring. 

A total of 79 protesters, including 41 students, were involved in the April 9 protest, calling on the nine-campus University of California system to divest from Israel.  

The Alameda County District Attorney dropped criminal charges against the “Wheeler 79” in June, but the university has pursued student conduct charges. 

Nine of the 41 students have agreed to an “informal resolution” of the charges, accepting a semester-long probation, while 32 have chosen to move forward with full hearings, opening themselves up to penalties as stiff as expulsion. 

All students face charges of unauthorized entry to or use of university property, obstruction or disruption of teaching or other university activity, disturbing the peace and failure to comply with the directions of a university official. 

Graduate student Roberto Hernandez, the subject of the first hearing Monday, faces an additional charge of physical or verbal abuse for allegedly biting a UC Berkeley police officer April 9. 

Hernandez, who said he is innocent of all charges, condemned UC Berkeley professor David Zusman, chair of the student conduct hearing committee, for his decision to close the proceedings. Hernandez said his supporters would not have disrupted the hearing. 

But university spokesperson Janet Gilmore said activists have made statements at student meetings about “rushing” the hearings. 

Closing the proceedings, she said, is “an effort to ensure that the hearing will be fair and orderly.”  

“That’s outrageous,” said Phan, of Students for Justice in Palestine, arguing that no statements about “rushing” the hearings were made. “I don’t know what they’re referring to.” 

Students have also raised concerns about the composition of the committee that will run the student conduct hearing Monday.  

Campus regulations call for a five-member committee composed of two faculty, two students and one staff member. If availability is a problem, the rules allow for alternates to fill in for regular committee members and for the panel to shrink to three members. 

The university informed the students’ lawyers Thursday afternoon that the Hernandez committee would be composed of three faculty members, one of them a replacement for a student who could not serve. 

Hernandez said the proposed panel was unacceptable, arguing that at least one student was necessary. 

“The committee needs to be representative of this campus,” he said. 

Gilmore said Friday that the university expected to have a three-member committee, with two faculty and one student, in place by Monday. 

“This is part of a pattern of a lot of late changes,” said Phan, noting that the university did not inform students until Thursday that it was moving the hearing from Sproul Hall at the center of campus to the Clark Kerr facility, seven blocks south of the main campus on Warring Street. 

“They’re trying to complicate things for us,” he said. “We have to scramble and call all of our witnesses and get them to another location.” 

“It was just another effort to ensure that the hearing is fair and orderly,” Gilmore replied, discussing the shift to Clark Kerr.  

Gilmore said students had circulated a flyer calling for a rally in Sproul Plaza outside the original hearing location.