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Are Kangaroo Courts the Norm at Asnuntuck Community College?

By April 2, 2014

If you’re a Connecticut student looking for a college that can be trusted with your free speech and due process rights, you could do a heck of a lot better than Asnuntuck Community College (ACC). That’s the lesson to be taken from the case of student Nicholas Saucier, who after recording a conversation with the state’s governor was suspended, charged with harassment and threatening behavior, and, as our press release yesterday noted, put through a disciplinary process biased against him in a way practically guaranteed to result in a guilty finding.

Saucier’s ordeal at ACC began on October 23, 2013, when Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy visited ACC to speak as part of an employment conference on campus. After Malloy finished his conference address, Saucier walked with Malloy to Malloy’s car, asking questions about the impact of recent gun legislation on Saucier’s business and recording the conversation with Malloy’s consent. Here’s how the letter we sent ACC on January 13, 2014, described the scene:

As Saucier’s recording shows, Saucier began discussing the impact of recent gun legislation on his business, asking Governor Malloy for advice on how to respond to new restrictions on gun manufacturing. Saucier alleges that as the conversation progressed and he continued to press the issue, you personally restrained him physically and attempted to move him away from the governor, an act partially captured on video. Just seconds later, when Governor Malloy stepped into his car and effectively ended the conversation, Saucier called out to him, “You’re a snake.” Saucier then paused his recording.

According to Saucier, [ACC Interim President James P. Lombella] then followed him into an ACC building, asking him his name and informing him that you were ACC’s president. At this point, Saucier once again began recording. Throughout this second video, Saucier verbally insists that both [Lombella] and the security officer not touch him, and he is recorded yelling to fellow students about his treatment by staff. Saucier was led inside by [Lombella] and then off campus by a campus security officer, who instructed Saucier that he would need to contact Dean of Students Katie Kelley for information about his ability to return to the College. (The videos’ time stamps suggest a gap of roughly 50 seconds between the end of the first recording and the beginning of the second recording.)

Saucier’s videos are below:

Later that day, Dean Kelley sent Saucier a letter notifying him that he had been “banned from the Asnuntuck Community College campus pending a meeting with me to discuss an incident … that occurred earlier today.”

During a meeting between Kelley and Saucier five days later, Kelley alleged that Saucier had acted in a disruptive and threatening manner. Yet Kelley refused to allow Saucier to show her the videos he’d recorded of the scene—the best evidence available to prove his innocence or guilt. She even allegedly requested that Saucier relinquish all copies of the video to the college. Saucier was placed on interim suspension on October 28, and a follow-up letter on November 6 clarified Saucier’s alleged conduct violations. According to this letter, Saucier had been “aggressive and hostile” during his conversation with Governor Malloy, had called him “a F* Snake [sic],” and had become “increasingly escalated in [his] tone and aggressive and hostile in [his] demeanor and thus created a perceived threat.” The letter also claimed that in his interactions with Lombella, Saucier caused “increased fear of a threat” when he “reached into [his] personal belongings to pull something out which was perceived to be a possible weapon” that was in fact nothing more than his video recorder. Saucier was charged with numerous conduct charges related to harassment, threats to physical safety, and even a requirement that ACC students “[d]emonstrate good citizenship by not engaging in conduct prohibited by federal, state, or other laws.”

As the disciplinary letter noted, expulsion was a potential punishment should he be found responsible for the charges against him. ACC gave Saucier the option of resolving the matter formally or informally, as many colleges do. Each option, though, had grave tradeoffs. The informal resolution required Saucier to accept responsibility for all charges against him and “voluntarily withdraw” and be banned from the ACC campus “until further notice.” Further, he would be required to complete “an appropriate professional evaluation” to ACC’s satisfaction in order to be reinstated.

The formal hearing procedure, though the far superior option, was still problematic. The hearing notice made clear that there were “no technical rules of evidence” and that the hearing panel enjoyed broad discretion “to decide what information is appropriate to be received for consideration.” It added that “there will be no tape recording or verbatim recording of the hearing made by any person,” depriving Saucier of a fundamental protection—one many colleges make a point of providing—in what was without question an adversarial procedure.

Saucier quickly learned at his hearing on November 18 just how ACC’s rules of evidence would be used against him. Once again, ACC refused to consider Saucier’s videos as evidence. Worse, Saucier was not allowed to review witness statements against him in advance, was given only 10–15 minutes at the hearing to review them, and reports that he was cut off as he began to directly refute the content of those statements. Not only was Saucier not allowed to record the hearing, but both he and his witness were prevented even from writing a transcription of the hearing by hand.

Had Saucier’s videos been allowed, several of ACC’s allegations against him would have gotten a rigorous testing. The videos substantially undermine, for instance, ACC’s charges that Saucier was so “aggressive and hostile” as to be considered a threat to Malloy’s safety and that his conversation with Lombella could reasonably be considered harassment. At the very least, the footage clearly shows that Saucier did not call Malloy a “fucking snake” as Kelley’s letter asserted (although even if he had, that alone would not have rendered his speech punishable). Saucier’s expression was protected by the First Amendment, and ACC repeatedly refused to review the best evidence to underscore that fact.

Unsurprisingly, given the severe disadvantages ACC ensured in the process, Saucier was found guilty of all charges against him. ACC lifted the interim suspension it had imposed on him weeks earlier, allowing him back on campus while on indefinite probation. ACC informed Saucier that any future conduct violations “will likely result in Suspension or Expulsion from the College.”

The lack of regard for free speech and especially for due process by the ACC administration in Saucier’s case is truly chilling. As we wrote in our January 13 letter to ACC, the restrictions on evidence and prohibition on any and all recording or transcription of Saucier’s hearing are not provided for by any ACC policy. The college, in effect, abridged its own procedures, adding unwritten rules that violated the written due process protections it promises students. As we wrote in our letter to ACC, the implications of Saucier’s case are deeply troubling:

These unwritten additions to ACC’s written policies are substantial enough to constitute abridgements of ACC students’ rights—abridgements that students cannot possibly be aware of from reading through ACC’s handbook and other materials. By subjecting Saucier to a disciplinary process markedly different from that contemplated by the college’s written policies, ACC raises serious questions about the fairness of its practices. Does ACC subject every student facing a high-stakes disciplinary hearing to these same denials of their due process rights? If it doesn’t, what factors inform the college’s decision on which unwritten policies will be invoked in hearings for students facing possible expulsion? Does ACC effectively coerce other students to consent to such an illiberal process by making voluntary acceptance of indefinite suspension their only other option? Does ACC regularly decline to provide students with the evidence entered against them at their hearings until the hearings themselves are in progress?

One of two conclusions seems inescapable: Either Saucier’s treatment represents standard ACC practice, or ACC consciously denied procedural safeguards to Saucier that it grants to other students. Each result is unacceptable. ACC has demonstrated that its written policies do not provide ACC students an accurate description of their rights. This should profoundly concern ACC, which is morally and legally obligated to ensure fairness and consistency in its disciplinary proceedings.

Asnuntuck Community College students: Consider yourselves warned about your college’s idea of due process should you find yourself facing its disciplinary system. As before, FIRE calls on ACC—which has failed to provide any response to us concerning Saucier’s case—to reject these illiberal methods and make certain that its disciplinary process treats students fairly and consistently. ACC must also throw out its charges against Saucier, given how severely it compromised his due process rights in punishing him for expression that was protected by the First Amendment.

Hopefully this much-needed sunlight on ACC’s practices gets it to clean up its act. If it doesn’t, students can let that same sunlight guide them to another college.

Schools: Asnuntuck Community College Cases: Asnuntuck Community College: Student Recording Conversation with Governor Suspended, Deprived of Fair Hearing