Table of Contents

After event disruption, UCSD doubles down on charging students who weren’t even there

FIRE raises numerous legal concerns amid reports that a dozen students charged for disrupting a university event in May weren’t even there.
University of California San Diego sign on campus

Ken Wolter /

The University of California San Diego’s decision to charge a large number of students who allegedly disrupted a campus event in May – charges that have swept up students who say they weren’t even present at the event – raises significant concerns about the university’s fealty to its constitutional obligations. 

UCSD initially appeared nonplussed by the unjustness of these measures, saying publicly that if students are innocent, they’ll have multiple chances “to tell their side of the story” — in misconduct hearings. After these comments, FIRE first told the university in early July that pulling innocent students into formal disciplinary proceedings without credible grounds to believe they legitimately violated any rules is a clear due process violation, not to mention a chill on campus speech if students know that protesting, even lawfully, may lead to misconduct charges. 

“Presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of any fair system of adjudication and is constitutionally mandated in all criminal and civil cases.”

UCSD doubled down in response to that letter, but FIRE pushed back, demanding that UCSD meet its First Amendment and due process obligations. At minimum, that means UCSD ensuring that it does not pull clearly innocent students into disciplinary processes, or presume their guilt until they prove themselves innocent. Because, as we told UCSD in challenging its blasé response, a “presumption of innocence is a bedrock principle of any fair system of adjudication and is constitutionally mandated in all criminal and civil cases.”

Disrupted protest leads to guilty-until-proven innocent decision-making

The trouble started May 5 when, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, a group of students disrupted an on-campus alumni awards ceremony, to protest UCSD’s alleged failure to honor a contract with a University of California union (United Autoworkers 2865). After protesters found themselves removed from the event, the university charged 67 students, telling the Times that those charged would receive multiple chances “to tell their side of the story” during the disciplinary process. 

Critically, though, it is unclear from public reporting exactly how the university determined which students to charge.

“If at any time it is determined that there is not reasonable cause to believe that a violation of the Standards of Conduct may have occurred, the student involved is promptly informed that no further action will be taken,” the university said. From a presumption-of-innocence perspective, that’s hardly reassuring.

FIRE first wrote the university on July 6 urging it to consider the due process implications of issuing blanket charges against all 67 students. As our letter explained:

Allegedly charging students without first considering where there is any reasonable basis to do so also raises significant due process concerns. Presuming students guilty until they prove themselves innocent violates all conceptions of fundamental fairness and will chill campus speech, as students may avoid expressive activity out of fear they will unjustly face disciplinary proceedings like those that UC San Diego appears to have initiated here. 

To be sure, substantial disruption of a university event is not protected expression – rather, generally speaking, it likely constitutes an unprotected heckler’s veto, which UCSD does have the responsibility to prevent, to allow expressive events to proceed. But that is not a license to create other rights violations.

The due process dilemma

The fundamental issue with UCSD’s approach is that it actively flouts basic due process protections. As a public university subject to constitutional limits, UCSD must not issue disciplinary charges against students without first at least cursorily reviewing the disruption to determine which students were involved, or whether misconduct by any given student occurred. It cannot force broad swaths of students into misconduct proceedings – which carry the chilling threat of disciplinary action – to only then determine if there was evidence of misconduct to begin with.

UCSD’s July 20 response to FIRE ignores that legal obligation (not to mention common sense) by backwardly reasoning that, if “disciplinary charges are brought against a student and at any time the University determines that such student did not engage in sanctionable conduct, the charges are promptly dismissed.” It adds that students are subject to discipline “only after either acceptance of responsibility or a hearing where the University bears the burden of proof.” Students will be excused from finding that to be cold comfort.

That’s because UCSD’s approach ignores the relevant legal standard, which asks whether the university’s actions “would chill or silence a person of ordinary firmness from future First Amendment activities.” UCSD’s actions also contradict its own policies, which unequivocally promise it will handle student conduct cases “in accordance with basic standards of procedural due process.” That requires, at minimum, presuming innocence, not guilt.

The presumption of innocence is a fundamental tenet of due process, one that we are deeply concerned UCSD is openly flouting, at the expense of an undue chilling effect on speech that compounds the constitutional concern.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.