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Where There’s Smoke, There’s FIRE: Two More Allegations of Rights Violations at Hawaii-Hilo

Last week, two students, supported by FIRE, filed a lawsuit against the University of Hawaii at Hilo (UH Hilo) for violating their rights to free expression. The students have alleged that Campus Student Center Director Ellen Kusano violated the constitutional rights of two members of the Young Americans for Liberty student organization when she stopped them from handing out copies of the Constitution to promote interest in their group. The plaintiffs have also challenged UH Hilo’s policy of limiting spontaneous political speech to a swampy area comprising just 0.26% of the Hilo campus.

Since the lawsuit was filed, other students have come forward alleging violations of their rights. As reported at Big Island Now, UH Hilo will be redoing its student government election after seven of the 17 candidates were improperly disqualified for allegedly violating election rules. Ms. Kusano is also at the center of that controversy. The summary of the ethics complaint states, in part:

We, students of UH Hilo have been wrongfully discriminated against by the University of Hawaii Student Association Election Committee … under the advice of Campus Center Director Ellen Kusano. We were informed on Thursday, April 24, 2014 that the 7 of us running for student government have been ‘disqualified’ for violating the Election Code. No specifics were given, no warnings, no appeal process, no response. This is an example of an institutional environment that fosters unfair practices.

Numerous complaints were made against the election committee and the unfair advice of Ellen Kusano (see individual complaints below). One student had a piece of paper grabbed from his hands by an election official. Another student with a disability was told he could not use a piece of paper with endorsed candidates, became discouraged, and did not vote. Another student was disqualified to run for office the day after the election, after she had been confirmed as a candidate weeks prior. UH Hilo students deserve better. We are the shareholders of the university and we call for UH Hilo to be fair, open, and transparent.

Finally, Ian Seely, a former student at UH Hilo, has filed a lawsuit in state court alleging he was the victim of racial discrimination while working in the Campus Center from 2011 to 2013.

FIRE has no special insight into the elections complaint or Mr. Seely’s lawsuit, nor do we have any proof that the lawsuit we coordinated inspired others to come forward. But it seems noteworthy that three allegations involving the UH Hilo Student Center have come to light in a single week. The key is that students are suddenly standing up for their constitutional rights and forcing UH Hilo to justify its actions. The more students call out administrators for their actions, the more colleges and universities will have to run their institutions in a way that is “fair, open, and transparent.”

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