Letter from FIRE to DePaul University President Dennis Holtschneider, February 21, 2013

By February 21, 2013

February 21, 2013

Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.
Office of the President
DePaul University
55 East Jackson Boulevard
Chicago, Illinois 60604

Sent via U.S. Mail and Electronic Mail (President@depaul.edu)

URGENT

Dear President Holtschneider:

As you may recall from our previous correspondence, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, academic freedom, due process, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.

We write today to express serious concern about free expression on your campus. DePaul has charged a student, Kristopher Del Campo, with multiple conduct violations because his group, Young Americans for Freedom, published online the names of students who admitted vandalizing his group’s pro-life display. These charges violate DePaul’s promises of free expression and dangerously chill student speech in the DePaul community.

The following is our understanding of the facts; please inform us if you believe we are in error. On January 22, 2013, the DePaul student chapter of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), having complied with all applicable university requirements, erected a display consisting of roughly 500 small flags on the main campus quad. At roughly 4:00 p.m. that day, multiple DePaul students vandalized the display by removing the flags and throwing them into trash cans around the DePaul campus. YAF President Kristopher Del Campo reported the destruction of property to DePaul’s Department of Public Safety, which opened an investigation.

On February 5, Assistant Dean of Students Domonic Rollins provided Del Campo with a Supplemental Investigation Report from DePaul Department of Public Safety investigator Kevin Connolly. The report, dated January 31, 2013, lists the names of 13 DePaul students who admitted to removing and discarding the flags from YAF’s display. The report states further:

They stated they are classmates, and had seen anti-abortion posters around campus earlier in the day that they found offensive. They had an emotional discussion prior to class, and after class they all walked about to the quad together. They then started pulling up all the flags and put them in garbage cans and carried some off to their next class.

Del Campo states that he was not given any instructions to keep the report confidential.

On February 5, the national YAF organization posted the report, including the names of the 13 students who had admitted to the vandalism, on its website. On February 8, Dean of Students Art Munin emailed Del Campo to inform him that he may have violated DePaul’s Code of Student Responsibility-specifically, policies governing “Disorderly, Violent, Intimidating or Dangerous Behavior to Self or Others” and “Judicial Process Compliance.” Munin prohibited Del Campo from “any contact” with the 13 students named in the report before a preliminary meeting to discuss the charges. Munin did not cite any specific provision from either policy Del Campo was alleged to have violated.

In a February 10 article in DePaul student newspaper The DePaulia, Vice President for Public Relations and Communications Cynthia Lawson stated that Del Campo had been given the investigative report in accordance with DePaul’s Judicial Review Process policies:

Lawson … confirmed that Del Campo received the list of students as per item 7 of the “Student Rights Within the Judicial Review Process” section of DePaul’s Code of Student Responsibility (Item 7 is “the right to have reasonable access to information specific to one’s case”).

The DePaulia article also stated that “[i]t is also ‘yet to be determined’ if the public posting of the list violates item 11, according to Lawson, and it is not Public Safety policy to publicly release students’ names after the judicial review process.” Item 11 of DePaul’s Student Rights Within the Judicial Review Process specifies that students have

[t]he right to have proceedings and documentation kept confidential. All hearings, proceedings and case information are considered confidential except to those who have a legitimate educational interest in them, or as permitted or required under FERPA, the Clery Act, or any other legal mandate.

In a meeting held February 15, Munin formally charged Del Campo with “Disorderly, Violent, Intimidating or Dangerous Behavior” and failure to comply with DePaul’s judicial process.

Munin will preside at an administrative hearing, scheduled for 9:00 a.m. tomorrow, February 22. DePaul has still not provided Del Campo in writing the precise grounds for bringing the two charges against him.

The charges against Del Campo violate his right to free expression and endanger the rights of DePaul’s student body as a whole for three reasons.

First, the charge of “Disorderly, Violent, Intimidating or Dangerous Behavior” is entirely inappropriate. This policy prohibits, among other behaviors, “taking any action that creates a substantial risk of physical harm to any person” and “causing significant emotional harm, bullying, and/or endangering the safety, health or life of any person on campus through actions or words.” The publication of the public safety report does not rise to the level of the conduct forbidden under this prohibition. Simply publishing the names of the students who confessed to vandalizing YAF’s display does not place them at “substantial risk of physical harm.” One unidentified student listed on the public safety report “said the release of the students’ names led to online threats and harassment,” according to the February 10 DePaulia article. Even if this unsubstantiated claim were true, DePaul cannot hold Del Campo responsible for the actions of others. If any of the students are subject to true harassment or genuine threats, they should report the incident to campus authorities or law enforcement agencies. Being exposed to public opprobrium for the crime of vandalism, however, does not violate their rights.

Further, the policy is impossibly vague. It does not define “significant emotional harm” or “bullying,” leaving the university almost total discretion to define these terms as it sees fit, perhaps even on a case-by-case basis. This violation of DePaul students’ free speech rights is inconsistent with DePaul’s stated commitment to “open discourse” and “robust debate and exposure to differing points of view.” These laudable promises of free expression protect Del Campo’s right to publicize the names of his fellow students who censored his lawful expression. DePaul makes a mockery of these promises by acting as if holding one’s censors publicly accountable is unprotected speech and thus can be punished on vaguely defined grounds.

Second, DePaul’s charge against Del Campo for violating Judicial Process Compliance likewise violates his rights. This policy prohibits, among other behaviors, “tak[ing] action that disrupts, or impairs the Judicial Review Process.” Del Campo does not lose his right to speak about the case, however, simply because the named students may be involved in the judicial process, and the publication of the report does not undermine the integrity of the process. Further, while DePaul may have an institutional policy against releasing the results of public safety investigations, a requirement that Del Campo refrain from discussing the results of the investigation amounts to nothing less than a gag order.

Third, DePaul has not specified the grounds for either charge against Del Campo, raising serious due process concerns. Del Campo is entitled to “[a] written statement of the alleged violations in sufficient enough detail to enable the referred student to prepare a defense,” as promised by DePaul’s policy on Student Rights Within the Judicial Process. DePaul has failed to provide any written statement describing the particular basis for its charges and the specific policies that are implicated by the charges. Del Campo’s ability to defend himself in a hearing is severely compromised because he can only guess at why he has been charged with violating these particular policies. Since the policies contain many different provisions, the requirements of basic justice demand that Del Campo be notified of which provisions he is supposed to have violated so that he may prepare an appropriate defense.

If DePaul does not quickly rectify its errors here, this case will dramatically chill student expression, if it has not already done so. What student will speak out and criticize those who suppress his or her rights if the result is a potentially life-altering charge of violent or intimidating behavior? And is DePaul truly comfortable with telling victims of a crime that they may not share the names of those who committed the crime against them?

The 13 DePaul students named in the public safety report admitted not only to vandalizing YAF’s display but also planning to do so. Students who purposefully vandalize the works of other students should not expect to be shielded from the public consequences of their actions. Those consequences include having their names publicly associated with the censorship of student expression in which they have taken part. To punish Del Campo for exposing the people who have injured him perverts the basic principles of fairness and justice.

FIRE asks that DePaul University immediately drop its charges against Kristopher Del Campo, reaffirm his right to free expression, and make clear that students may speak out when their rights are suppressed by fellow students without fear of punishment for doing so.

We have enclosed a signed FERPA waiver from Kristopher Del Campo with this letter, permitting you to freely discuss his case with FIRE.

We request that DePaul respond to FIRE’s letter by March 1, 2013.

Sincerely,

Peter Bonilla
Associate Director, Individual Rights Defense Program

Encl.

cc:
Art Munin, Dean of Students
Cynthia Lawson, Vice President for Public Relations and Communications
Cindy Summers, Interim Vice President for Student Affairs
Domonic Rollins, Assistant Dean of Students

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Schools: DePaul University Cases: DePaul University: Student Punished For Exposing Vandals of Pro-Life Display