Quiet riot bill
Police like proposed law forcing colleges to expel ‘riotous’ students
Better move fast.
In a bill that’s been quietly working its way through the state Senate, partying too hard, participating in a protest or failing to get out when ordered by police will get you kicked out of a California college if you’re convicted of one of a variety of riot-related offenses, including misdemeanors.
According to the office of the bill’s author, Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, Senate Bill 337 is intended to address college parties or after-game sports celebrations that get out of hand. But local police intend on enforcing it much more broadly if it becomes law.
Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty said his department would find it helpful not just for parties, but also in war protests, political marches and other such events. “It would be [applied] in any crowd situation—any large crowd in which a dispersal [order] is given.”
Colleges need to “take control” of their students, Hagerty asserted. “Students are guests here in town, and there’s a certain level of behavior that’s expected.” If students don’t follow the law, he said, “You have to take a harder approach.”
The bill is strict: Not only would it require a CSU, UC or state-run community college to expel a convicted student for at least a year, it would also take away that student’s state financial aid.
Civil libertarians see SB 337, which is still in committee after an April 13 hearing, as the latest in a series of attacks on personal freedoms.
“It can prevent a lot of people from being involved in higher education if all the provisions are enacted,” said Laura Ainsworth, representative for the Chico and North Valley chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. (The ACLU and the Green Party of California are among those opposing SB 337.) “The implications for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are tremendous from this bill.”
Nicole DeMartini, director of legislative affairs for Chico State University’s Associated Students, joined other members of the California State Students Association (CSSA) last week in voting to oppose SB 337. “Everyone was really on the same page: upset about the bill. This is just way out of bounds.
“My immediate thought was, that’s not the CSU’s job,” DeMartini said, wondering, as did the Senate Committee on Education that studied the bill, how colleges could perform background checks on every student and essentially serve as law enforcement. “Where are the lines being drawn? If I am having a meeting with my lobby corps and we’re of dissenting opinion, am I going to get in trouble for that? What if I’m in the middle of [Halloween festivities] and a riot breaks out?”
From the perspective of its backers, the bill would relieve a shortcoming in existing law that doesn’t give state colleges enough power to discipline students for behavior that occurs solely off-campus.
Tom Kise, communications director for Senator Maldonado, said the bill came about directly as a result of the student-dominated Mardi Gras celebration in downtown San Luis Obispo, which reached its raucous peak in 2004. But, Kise added, Maldonado had Chico’s Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day festivities in mind, too.
“The intent is strictly for parties that get out of hand,” Kise said, acknowledging that in its current form the bill makes no mention of parties nor political protests. “The idea behind the bill is not to infringe upon a human’s right to protest … in a political setting.”
Chief Hagerty said criminal prosecution is not enough of a deterrent to keep college students from unlawful assembly. “I think [SB 337] would send a large message to the students at universities that are prone to get involved in large parties,” he said. “We have an element of people who don’t want to obey the law, [and] we don’t currently have anything on the books that would help us.”
Students, including minors, dismissed under SB 337 would be allowed to reapply to state colleges after one year, but they wouldn’t be eligible to receive Cal Grants for at least two years.
DeMartini, of the A.S., said that provision favors well-to-do students, who could just enroll in a private university if expelled. “It disproportionately affects the neediest students.”
Colleen Bentley-Adler, spokesperson for the CSU Chancellor’s Office, said that although the CSUs are currently in the process of reviewing their disciplinary policies, neither the chancellor nor the Board of Trustees has taken a position on SB 337.
“We have had problems on our campuses with student behaviors,” she said. But, party problems aside, the CSU would tend not to stifle political discourse. “You don’t want to stop some of this political activity. That’s part of the learning process.”
Removing university discretion, Bentley-Adler said, could prove problematic. “Having something so strict is usually not a good idea. We would not look with favor on something like that. Students are not alike. Cases are not alike.”
The bill has so far gotten little publicity on a statewide basis. This month, student government and city leaders in Davis took a stance opposing SB 337, with two councilmembers noting that they participated in peace marches and an anti-apartheid demonstration while CSU students.
Conversely, the city of San Luis Obispo—home to a CSU campus—has signed on in favor of it.
Ken Hampian, city administrative officer for San Luis Obispo, said the city approached Maldonado, worried about “this phenomenon of out-of-control party-rioting and what I call ‘party tourists.'”
Hampian was among a delegation from San Luis Obispo that traveled to Chico last June to learn more about how this city tempered Halloween celebrations with an increased police presence and a mandate to arrest. City leaders were “impressed,” Hampian said. “It is appropriate for the state to send a message that it’s not OK to riot and run amok.”
Hampian also believes the bill, mimicking an Ohio law, is intended only to address party-related riots. “There is absolutely no intention of thwarting political protests.”
The Senate’s Committee on Education found more problems when it examined the bill. Senate staff wondered why SB 337 targets convictions for riot-related offenses and not, say, felony drunk driving. The committee also noted how the bill eliminates campus discretion, makes no distinction between a decade-old conviction and a new one, and doesn’t allow for due process as is currently provided in the Education Code.
Hagerty implied that students who would be punished under the bill would have no one to blame but themselves. “They need to weigh [their educational goals] when they get involved in a riot.”
Kise, of the senator’s office, said, “Ideally, the bill would never have to be used if students didn’t go out and do crazy things after a party or after the [sports] games.”