OPEN LETTER OF PROTEST
Join Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Peter Camejo and many others in adding your name to the letter below that will appear as a full-page advertisement in the UC-Berkeley Daily Cal newspaper on October 27. This will be the day before the sentencing hearing for three Berkeley students being disciplined for their role in a peaceful antiwar sit-in. Please send your name and affiliation to [email protected]. If you are able to make a contribution to the cost of publishing this letter, please make out a check to "BSTW" (that's the Berkeley Stop the War coalition) and put "Berkeley 3" in the memo line. Send it to: BSTW, c/o Snehal Shingavi, 322 Wheeler Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720. Lastly, please forward this letter to professors, students, labor and social justice activists and leaders, writers, artists, journalists and everyone you know who cares about civil liberties --and ask them to sign on along with you.
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On Tuesday, October 14, three University of California, Berkeley students, Rachel Odes, Michael Smith and Snehal Shingavi, were convicted in absentia of "disturbing the peace" by a university disciplinary panel for their role in a March 20, 2003 anti-war sit-in. On that day, 4,000 Berkeley students responded to the beginning of President Bush's invasion of Iraq by rallying on the historic Mario Savio steps of Sproul Hall administration building. Over 400 students then entered Sproul Hall and began a peaceful sit-in to demand that the University of California take a stand against the war by declaring Baghdad University a sister school, refusing to comply with FBI requests for information on foreign students and pledging to refrain from raising tuition and laying off faculty and staff because of budget cuts caused by military spending. UC administrators refused to even discuss these demands and ordered police to make arrests for "trespassing."
Since Sproul Hall is a public building, operated and paid for by student tuition, and it was during business hours, UC police declared the sit-in, which was confined to the front lobby, an "unlawful assembly." Eventually, 119 protesters were arrested.
In the Alameda County District Attorney's judgment, the students' actions did not warrant prosecution and all legal charges were quickly dropped. The UC Berkeley administration, however, decided to press ahead with its own disciplinary charges, which could include penalties ranging from community service to a ban on participating in future protests to suspension from school.
If the conviction against these three prominent activists in the Berkeley Stop the War coalition stands, it will chill free speech at UC Berkeley.
Compounding matters, the UC Berkeley administration has made a mockery of due process rights. It has stacked the deck by assigning full-time administrators to prosecute the students, while assigning only two unpaid and inexperienced student advocates to the defense.
The administration has repeatedly violated its own written procedures. For instance, two of the defendants received certified letters notifying them of the hearing on October 3, just seven business days prior to the hearing. The third student, Rachel Odes, never even received a letter. University policy clearly states that defendants must be notified at least 10 days in advance of the hearing. When this fact was brought to his attention, disciplinary hearing committee chair physics professor Robert Jacobsen told Odes that "since her friends told her about it, she only lost a day or two."
This disregard for university rules adversely affects the students' ability to prepare a defense because the administration also asserts that any witnesses or evidence to be used in the hearing must be submitted at least 5 days in advance. Thus, the students had, at most, 48 hours to contact witnesses, gather statements, retain legal counsel and generally prepare themselves for the hearing. The defendants brought these procedural violations to the attention of the five-man hearing board and requested a one-month delay. Jacobsen dismissed these concerns out of hand and admonished the students not to pursue a "scorched-earth" defense. When supporters in the audience at the hearing gasped, the hearing board chair declared that he would "move the hearing to the men's room" if there were any interference from the public. After realizing that one of the defendants was a woman, he embarrassingly added, "or the women's room."
As the defendants attempted to plead their case, the Jacobsen interrupted them, held up his finger like an umpire and said, "That's one!" When the defendants continued, he continued, "that two!" Before they could be called out on three strikes, Michael Smith spoke up saying, "Our academic careers on are the line. More importantly, this is about the right of students to dissent on this campus and to receive due process when the university comes after us. We are not going to sit here and be part of this joke of a hearing." The three defendants then led their supporters out of the hearing room.
We believe that Berkeley is violating these students' right to due process.
We do not understand why a reasonable delay in the hearing could not be granted.
We protest the decision to convict them in absentia.
We call on UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl and Dean of Students Karen Kenney to step into this process and cancel the October 28 sentencing hearing.
We demand that a new hearing date be set, on a date mutually agreeable to both parties that respects the students' right to organize an adequate defense.
The Bush Administration has carried out an unprecedented attack on civil liberties in this country over the last two years. The UC Berkeley administration has a special duty to ensure that its academic community stands as a beacon of light for hard-won legal protections for which so many generations have fought. The university should be encouraging discourse and tolerating dissent as part of a diversified educational experience, benefiting the student body and the community as a whole. Instead, it is cutting corners and steamrollering students' rights in its rush to punish opposition to war. It is time for the UC Berkeley administration to come to its senses and grant a new hearing for Odes, Smith and Shingavi.
Initiated by the Committee to Defend Student Civil Liberties. Affiliations listed for identification purposes only.