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UC Irvine protest case raises questions about discipline practices

Campus suspends Muslim Student Union for allegedly planning to disrupt Israeli diplomat's speech, and then denying it. Experts say it's unusual for a whole group to be sanctioned in civil disobedience cases.

June 21, 2010|By Larry Gordon and Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times

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.

FOR THE RECORD: In an article that ran in Monday's LATExtra about college discipline processes, the student group Campus Rights Project was incorrectly referred to as the Campus Capital Rights Project.

The one-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.

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