Three GU Fossil Free students are each facing two charges for code of conduct violations from the Director of Student Conduct Judy Johnson for their actions at World Bank president Dr. Jim Yong Kim’s speech on March 18.
Elaine Colligan (SFS ‘15), Patricia Cipollitti (SFS ‘15) [Full Disclosure: Patricia Cipollitti is a former Voice staffer], and Chloe Lazarus (COL ‘16) of GU Fossil Free walked onto the stage in Gaston Hall between Dr. Kim’s speech and the Q&A segment holding a banner with a quote of Kim, “Corporate leaders should not wait to act until market signals are right and national investment policies are in place,” and the words “Georgetown DIVEST now GU Fossil Free.” The three students were then asked to leave the stage repeatedly by Director of Student Conduct Judy Johnson and GUPD officers, and were eventually escorted off the stage and then out of Gaston Hall and the building. The three students are now facing charges from Ms. Johnson for violating the university’s Code of Conduct on two accounts: “unauthorized access” and “failure to comply with university officials or university policy.”
At the time of print, the Voice was waiting on comments from Johnson and the Office of Student Conduct.
The three Fossil Free students posted their responses to Ms. Johnson’s charges on the GUFF website, arguing their actions constituted an act of “peaceful protest,” that their actions were “protected by the Speech and Expression Policy,” and that the charges “are unreasonable and decidedly without grounding” and “insidious.”
The two conduct charges have raised broader questions about speech and expression on campus. “We know our actions fully complied with university policy and were an act of free speech,” Lazarus said. “We believe we have a right to speak up against the injustices Georgetown promotes.”
The conduct charges bring an additional dimension to the discussion of the implementation of the Speech and Expression Policy. The Code of Conduct and the Speech and Expression Policy are two separate policies, and the conduct charges are not attempting to enforce speech and expression. This means that two separate issues of student conduct and speech and expression are involved, but opinions on which issue is most important in this case vary.
Sam Kleinman (COL ‘16) [Full Disclosure: Sam Kleinman is a former Voice staffer], a member of the Speech and Expression Committee and GUSA secretary of free speech, said, “It is my opinion that the issue here has very little to do with accessing a restricted area, and more to do with whether speech was properly exercised as allowed under the policy.”
Although Kleinman believes the university acted erroneously and against its Speech and Expression Policy, he understands the basis for the university’s charges. “There is an argument to be made that these protesters violated other relevant university policy,” he said. “It really depends on how you construct the restricted access argument.”
According to Student Advocacy Office Co-director Ryan Shymansky (COL ‘16) “unauthorized access” means entering any area specifically designated as off-limits by the university, or that may reasonably be considered restricted and “failure to comply” is behavior that does not follow the directives of university officials. In the case of the Fossil Free students, the university considers their presence on the stage “unauthorized access,” and considers their decision to remain on the stage when GUPD officers and the Director of Student Conduct told them to move “failure to comply.”
Shymansky believes the intent of “unauthorized access” in the code is to restrict access to spaces where a concern for student safety exists, such as mechanical and electrical areas. “This is not a view that the university shares,” Shymansky said. “The Code is too general to reach any definitive conclusion. The Free Speech and Expression Policy is more specific, however, and suggests that students are permitted on Gaston stage.”
Dr. Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, wrote generally in an email to the Voice, “Our understanding is that the stage in any campus venue is a space reserved for the speakers/performers at events that are taking place there.”
The overlap between conduct policy and speech policy in this case sets a precedent for how conduct policies can be enforced in relation to speech. “Free speech and conduct issues are both at play here. What’s difficult is separating the two.” Shymansky said. “The Code of Student Conduct shouldn’t be used as a club to limit free speech rights already granted to students by the university.”
There is also concern about the lack of separation between policy enforcement and adjudication in this case. Generally, there is a separation between enforcement of university policy through the GUPD and the adjudication of cases.
“This case is slightly different, since the Director of the Office of Student Conduct was present at the Fossil Free protest and is involved with adjudicating the students’ case as well,” Shymansky said. “[GUPD and the Office of Student Conduct’s] roles are normally much more clearly delineated.”
According to Shymansky, this case is being resolved through administrative action. Administrative action is defined by the Office of Student Conduct as “the resolution of a case by a case by a Conduct Officer. … The Conduct Officer has the ability to find a student responsible for violations of the Code of Student Conduct and assign sanctions.” In this case, the Conduct Officer is Judy Johnson, who filed the charges and was also present and involved in enforcement at the protest.
“The Office of Student Conduct, and specifically Ms. Johnson, is trying to restrict our free speech and silence our voices,” said Lazarus.