Students, experts question riot policy’s legality

Kari Petrie

Students and legal experts say the University might be overstepping its bounds with a new effort to prevent off-campus student riots.

Regents approved a policy in June that allows the University to discipline students for rioting, even if the activities take place off campus. Administrators also announced a plan to place several student representatives in campus neighborhoods who would mediate conflicts between students and permanent residents.

Minneapolis-based constitutional lawyer Marshall Tanick said the riot policy is an overreaction by the University to the April 12 riot in Dinkytown and potentially places students in double jeopardy.

“It reeks of constitutional problems,” he said.

After reviewing the policy, Tanick said he has several unanswered questions: Is it unfair for the policy to apply to students and not employees? Will first-year students be treated differently than those close to graduation? And, will the University conduct its own investigations independent of police?

University President Bob Bruininks defended the policy and said the University has no intentions of infringing on students’ freedoms and only wants to hold students responsible for their actions.

“We believe very much in protecting the rights of people, but we also expect them to be responsible,” he said. “We’re not going to run a police state.”

John Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer and director of the Rutherford Institute, said the riot policy is legal because students agree to follow the conduct code when they attend the University.

The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal assistance on constitutional and human rights issues.

However, Whitehead said the University’s student mediator plan could create a “big brother” atmosphere in the neighborhoods if the mediators are involved in private issues.

“There’s a lot of problems with what (the University is) doing right now,” Whitehead said.

Interim Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs June Nobbe said the student mediators will not have disciplinary or enforcement power, but will work to “smooth things over with community members.” She compared them to community advisers in residence halls.

The student mediators will likely report to a new administrator in charge of student and community relations, she said.

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said he does not foresee privacy issues with the peer residents, but students on campus Friday expressed some concern.

School of Nursing sophomore Catherine Olson said she likes the idea of the program and hopes it is used more as a resource for permanent residents than as a way to referee disputes.

She said students are adults and should be able to solve their own problems.

Liz Borer, a history and global studies junior, agreed.

She said improving communication between the students and residents is important, but questioned whether the University is going too far.

“If it’s a method to control students – that’s dangerous.”

Kari Petrie covers the Board of Regents and administration. She welcomes comments at [email protected]