Protesters feel stifled by UC Berkeley crackdown

Michael Macor / The Chronicle
UC Berkeley police push back protesters outside Wheeler Hall during a rally against salary cuts and layoffs in November. Many students criticize the school’s disciplinary process.

A campus crackdown on protesters has brought relative calm to UC Berkeley this semester, but it’s provoking accusations that administrators are intimidating students with vague charges and quelling free speech with an arbitrary application of rules.

Compared with the fall semester, when students angry over budget cuts seized buildings, clashed with police and vandalized Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s home, the spring semester has been quiet save for one wild February night when students trashed a construction site and rampaged down Telegraph Avenue.

But the university is focusing on protests from November and December, and have accused at least 63 students of violating the Code of Student Conduct. Disciplinary action includes possible suspension.

Students say the drawn-out disciplinary process is riddled with problems and is stifling legitimate activism.

“You look around the room and say, ‘How many people are in?’ And nobody’s in,” said one doctoral student facing disciplinary charges who declined to be named. “Either they have conduct charges against them, or they can’t risk getting them, or they’re just scared.”

Many won’t even attend rallies, said freshman Abhay Agarwal, also facing charges. “Nobody wants to get suspended.”

Campus officials deny they are trying to muffle free speech.

“The campus applies the code consistently and fairly,” said Susan Trageser, assistant dean of students. “The conduct process is in no way intended to squelch free speech.”

Dozens of students have received charges: destroying property, breaking into buildings, threatening violence, unlawful assembly and more. Students say the charges are overly broad.

Those accused are interviewed and entitled to a hearing, Trageser said. “It’s an educational process where we try to figure out exactly what happened.”

If investigators find a student “more than likely” violated the code, she said, “we try to work with the student to resolve the case with educational sanctions,” including writing an essay about their decisions.

Campus Rights Project

Students liken the process to a high-stakes legal proceeding – but without safeguards to protect suspects’ rights. They’ve formed the Campus Rights Project with a group of law students and a faculty adviser to help navigate through it.

One objection is that the university lifted its timeline for swift resolution of cases. Trageser said that was done in August because her staff would be out for weeks on cost-cutting furloughs.

Students also say that a rule barring advisers from speaking during a hearing denies them their right to counsel. And they say they’re being pressured to accept punishment on flimsy evidence – or face more stringent sanctions.

“I think it’s a warning to students that their form of protest will not be tolerated and that they must check their constitutional rights at the campus gate,” said Steve Rosenbaum, a law school lecturer advising the students.

One of those in trouble is Agarwal.

Last fall, the freshman posted flyers titled “They are Lying to You,” featuring photos of Birgeneau, campus Police Chief Mitch Celaya and Dean Jonathan Poullard.

It’s against campus rules to post flyers in undesignated areas. Agarwal, who said he put them up by the Free Speech Cafe, said he’s being charged not for posting them, but for their content.

“My case is the first that I or anyone else has heard of where the Office of Student Conduct has pursued charges for such a violation,” he said. “I’ve seen flyers on doors, windows and buildings that are against the rules almost every day of my education here.”

Trageser said her office follows up on about three improper postings per year. “I feel very comfortable saying it had nothing to do with the content,” she said.

Another student whose case has gotten attention is Angela Miller, a sophomore. She was among hundreds present at the chancellor’s house Dec. 11 when protesters smashed windows, lamps and planters. A photo shows Miller with a torch, which she denies throwing.

Looking at academic record

Police arrested eight as the crowd fled, including Miller and junior Zach Bowin. Both were released without charges but were suspended.

Bowin’s suspension was rescinded. Miller’s was not. Letters show the decisions were based largely on their academic record, which students say reveals an ad hoc disciplinary system.

A letter to Bowin from the hearing panel praises him for being “an outstanding student” as a factor in clearing him.

Miller’s letter refers to her “poor academic record.” Until a formal hearing in May, she may attend classes but may not otherwise set foot on campus. She earned two new violations for attending a campus symposium on the disciplinary process.

The double standard is “unfair,” said law student Daniela Urban. “The presumption for students that have good academics is that they did less wrong.”

Trageser said the panel relies on academic information “so we can help the student.”

Miller can avoid a hearing by accepting a one-year suspension and writing an essay. If she declines, punishment could be even more stringent.

Others also have settlement offers, including seven-month suspensions or stayed suspensions.

Student Callie Maidhof has written to faculty asking for help in opposing the process. Present at most of last fall’s protests, Maidhof said she’s among many whose charges are “unsupported by evidence” and that even a stayed suspension is unacceptable because a subsequent complaint about her would mean instant suspension.

“This is an extremely vulnerable situation,” she wrote. “It would effectively shut down my participation in any activism or protest in any capacity. We need all the help we can get.”

E-mail Nanette Asimov at