UC Berkeley’s Dean of Students Karen Kenney this week issued her ruling on the fates of three students charged with violating the student code of conduct during an anti-war sit-in at Sproul Hall last March.
After deliberating more than two weeks, Kenney ordered a reportable letter of warning inserted into the files of Rachel Odes and Snehal Shingavi. She also ruled that they must perform 20 hours of community service.
She gave the third defendant, Michael Smith, a one-semester suspension that would start this spring—a punishment that will be stayed if he follows the panel’s recommendations and successfully completes an anger management course at the on-campus Tang Medical Center. Kenney also ordered that he receive a reportable letter of warning and perform 30 hours of community service.
The students’ supporters greeted the recommendation to stay Smith’s suspension as a partial victory, but said they are outraged by the recommendation for anger management.
“For a political offense this is really an unprecedented use of psychological treatment,” said Todd Chretien, a member of the Committee to Defend Student Civil Liberties, an ad-hoc political group formed to defend the students.
“They are basically slandering Smith as an out-of-control, violent, reckless individual, and we believe the university is trying to smear his character in order to avoid what everybody agrees are political charges.”
Smith said he wasn’t surprised about the dean’s decision but was taken aback by the suggestion for him to attend anger management classes.
“I think the motivation that led [the campus judicial officer] to bring charges was the same thing that motivated the dean,” said Smith. “They want to silence dissent on campus and don’t want to see students exercise their right to protest.”
“I was a little shocked by the decision. It’s almost laughable if it wasn’t so serious. I will fully admit however, to being quite angry about the war and the way the university has reacted to protest. I think we have the right to protest and to let our voices be heard and any time that the university tries to take that away is going to make me angry.”
The students now have 15 days to appeal the decision to Vice Chancellor Genaro Padilla, whose decision is final.
Of the 122 students arrested during the Sproul Hall sit-in, the university charged only the three defendants, citing prior conduct records.
Smith’s charges were the most severe because of his involvement in what the university labeled a “racially motivated” incident involving a group of Asian men.
Smith hotly disputed the school’s version of the incident during an Oct. 28 hearing, contending that he had confronted a campus police officer because he thought the officer was harassing the Asians.
Smith and his codefendants claimed the incident was maliciously raised by campus judicial officer Neal Rajmaira to bolster a weak case.
In the end, the campus tribunal which heard the students’ case rejected the arguments of both Rajmaira and Smith. Panel chair and Physics Professor Bob Jacobson entered only the written report of the incident as evidence.
The students have consistently assailed the university as the only institution to charge students for actions during the wave of anti-war protests that erupted on campuses across the country when the war in Iraq broke out.
In her official statement, Dean Kenney said her review of the recommendations was meant to ensure charges are fair and consistent with other cases. Students disagreed, saying the move to target three students out of the 119 arrested was selective, an example-setting repression of free speech rights.
The defendants also claim their due process right were violated. The students, who initially expected to receive the panel recommendations within a week of the Oct. 28 hearing, had to wait over two weeks. They have 15 days to appeal, but Chretien said that period also includes the time needed by the vice chancellor to review the case and decide, limiting the time they will have to draft their letter.
The students aren’t allowed to appeal in person, and only written statements will be considered.
Chretien said he and his fellow codefendants thought they would have the chance to appeal to Kenney before her decision.
Ann Weilles, a National Lawyers Guild attorney handling the students’ appeal, says she is concerned both with the decision to force Smith into anger management courses and with the consequences of a reportable letter of warning that stays in the student’s file and can be accessed by government agencies and other schools.
“Snehal might not be hurt that much because he is a graduate student, but if Rachel or Michael want to transfer to a graduate program, they might be denied,” she said.
Dean Kenney’s decision to authorize the letters coincides with a university report on changes to the student code of conduct that would bar lawyers from speaking for students during disciplinary hearings. University representatives say the decision to amend the code was part of regularly scheduled review already underway before the current case.
The convicted students say the timing is too close to be coincidental and constitutes proof that the university is trying to rewrite the rules in its favor. They say they’re also worried about the university’s ability to press charges that stay in their file when they are unable to exercise due process rights, including the right to representation by a lawyer.
As the appeal deadline approaches, the students and their supporters are asking supporters to write the vice-chancellor and demand dismissal of the charges. They’ve also been in contact with Amy Goodman, host of the radio and TV show Democracy Now, who has agreed to address the issue when she receives the Mario Savio Free Speech Award from the University on Thursday.
“We believe the university’s intent has all along been to impose as harsh a punishment as possible,” said Chretien. “And we feel that they are going to go ahead with these punishments unless they feel community and student heat.”