Protesters face sanctions

Nine students received letters saying they may be punished for conduct code violations.

by Haley Hansen

University of Minnesota students could face disciplinary action for chanting and holding signs at a campus ribbon-cutting ceremony earlier this semester.

Members of the Whose Diversity? student group protested renovations to the second floor of Coffman Union at a March 12 event, saying the changes were made without enough student input.

Several group members received letters dated April 29 saying their protest violated the Student Conduct Code. Group members say the University is threatening unwarranted punishment and violating their freedom of speech, but administrators say they’re simply following protocol.

“The charges were not founded,” said individualized studies senior Tori Hong, a Whose Diversity? member. “All we really did was ask questions and hold up signs.”

Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Danita Brown Young, who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, said nine group members received the warning letters after a University staff member, whose name is undisclosed, filed a complaint with the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity.

According to the letter, the students violated two parts of the Student Conduct Code, including disruptive behavior and refusing to identify and comply with
University officials. Other Big Ten universities have similar rules.

“There were several administrators who did ask the group to stop being disruptive,” Brown Young said. “They didn’t comply, so I would say I did see some disruption of a University event.”

The letter outlines potential punishments ranging from warnings to expulsion, but Brown Young said that doesn’t necessarily mean the University will pursue any disciplinary actions. The protesters are required to visit the Student Conduct and Academic Integrity office by May 6.

“It’s just a process to have that individual come into the office so they can be explained their rights [and] they can understand the process better,” Brown Young said.

University faculty members and administrators in the Student Conduct and Academic Integrity office want to hear the students’ perspective, Brown Young said. Expulsions, she said, are only reserved for severe cases.

“What I really truly want to emphasize is that this process is meant to be educational and it’s meant to be developmental,” she said.

Whose Diversity? and Students for a Democratic Society member Nick Theis said members didn’t plan to disrupt the event.

“We probably weren’t totally respectful, but that’s how free speech goes,” he said. “It’s ugly sometimes.” 

Theis said it was important that group members’ voices were heard, despite the disruption. 

“What it ultimately comes down to is we were exercising our free speech rights, and maybe we were just a little bit disrespectful, but we have some pretty legitimate concerns,” he said. 

Sociology graduate student Rahsaan Mahadeo also participated in the protest but did not receive a letter from the University. Mahadeo contacted the Student Conduct and Integrity office and requested to be included. He received his letter last Friday.

Mahadeo, who recently received an Outstanding Community Service Award from the University, said several faculty members are currently supporting Whose Diversity? and are requesting that the University drop the charges against group members. Whose Diversity? isn’t officially registered as a student group with Student Unions and Activities.

Of the nearly 40 protesters, the individual who filed the complaint listed only nine. Five of those students are seeking legal counsel.

Global studies senior and group member Leah Prudent said the letter violates students’ First Amendment rights and said she hopes the group’s lawyer, Bruce Nestor, will convince the University to drop any charges.

Hong said she’s concerned how potential disciplinary action could affect her academic career and upcoming graduation.

“The event was not disrupted,” she said. “The [ceremony] still went on in the way that it was supposed to.”

Blair Emerson contributed to this report.