When students are accused of breaking the law while engaging in nonviolent off-campus expressive conduct, but not yet convicted, should colleges initiate disciplinary proceedings against them? FIRE doesn’t think so, but evidently that’s what students at the University of Georgia (UGA) can expect.
On March 2, UGA student Adam Veale was arrested for blocking the steps of the rotunda outside of Atlanta’s capitol building while participating in a protest for Medicaid reform. Weeks later, Veale was charged with violating UGA’s Code of Conduct. Veale was offered an informal resolution, which would require him to admit guilt, but he chose to contest the charges in a formal conduct hearing because he maintains that his participation in a nonviolent off-campus protest should not qualify as punishable conduct at the university.
FIRE is concerned that UGA is treating Veale’s arrest as sufficient cause to initiate disciplinary proceedings:
“While we cannot comment on an individual student, I can assure you that the University does not discipline students for engaging in lawful protests or for the content of constitutionally protected expression,” said UGA Vice President for Public Affairs Tom Jackson, in an email to The Red & Black. “It is when a student is arrested, which is an allegation that they have violated the law, that action under the student conduct code is initiated.”
If there’s any evidence that Veale has violated the code of conduct beyond just the fact of his arrest, UGA should say so. However, if the arrest is the sole basis for UGA’s disciplinary proceedings, then perhaps UGA could consider waiting until the student’s innocence or guilt has been decided by impartial fact-finders before setting the disciplinary wheels in motion. And UGA should certainly not be asking a student to admit guilt when that admission could be used against him in contemporaneous criminal proceedings.
But perhaps UGA should first contemplate the necessity of punishing a student at all for his engagement in a nonviolent political protest, as Veale himself points out:
“This is a nonviolent political protest,” Veale said. “In the section of the student code of conduct that I was apparently in violation of, it has a little foreword. ‘The University of Georgia is committed to the marketplace of ideas and the freedoms of speech protected in the U.S. and Georgia constitutions.’ To me, political protests like the one I was a part of is the whole reason that conduct section is written, is to protect nonviolent political speech.”
Veale is right to be concerned about UGA’s attempt to punish him for his participation in this protest. By targeting a student engaging in off-campus protests for punishment without citing evidence of his guilt, UGA is chilling other students’ off-campus speech and warning them that they could face UGA’s disciplinary process for participating in a political protest.