New Ohio Law Requires Colleges to Expel Students Involved in Disturbances

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Students who participate in riots or other disturbances will be immediately expelled from state-supported colleges in Ohio for a year and will be ineligible for state financial aid for two years under state legislation enacted last week. Although supporters of the measure say it will help prevent riots like those that have erupted after college sporting events, some students and state officials worry that it could be used to punish students who gather for peaceful reasons, such as political protests.

The new policy was signed into law by Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, as part of the state budget. The punishments would affect students enrolled at state-supported colleges who are convicted of aggravated riot, disorderly conduct, or failure to disperse, provided that the violations occurred "within the proximate area where four or more others are acting" in a similar fashion.

One opponent of the law, State Sen. Robert F. Hagan, a Democrat, said he worried that it could be applied to nearly any large gathering of students.

"I'm not defending riots, but I'm defending peaceful assembly," he said. "I'm defending the right of freedom of speech, and I'm defending the right of people to do that without being arbitrarily harassed by their government." He added that the police could easily define "failure to disperse" as simply not clearing an area quickly enough or could enforce it on people who were simply watching a protest.

Officials at Ohio State University said they were still unfamiliar with the law and were scrambling to determine its potential impact. Some 45 people were arrested last fall, when a riot broke out after the university's football team defeated the University of Michigan to win a berth in the national-championship game.

"We need time to study what the implications will be," said Bill Hall, vice president for student affairs.

But he said that the law could serve as one tool to help the university curb riots. "The majority of our students, faculty, and staff are frustrated with these few individuals that continue to come into the area and continue to cause trouble in the university district. They're asking that we take the strongest possible stance with respect to these violators."

However, Mr. Hall said, the university is already punishing rioters. "I think we've taken the harshest possible steps -- we have suspended students anywhere from two quarters up to a year and a half to two years in length," he added. One possible concern, he said, is that the new law could limit colleges' flexibility in responding to disturbances.

As to whether the law could be used to punish student activists, Mr. Hall said: "I'm not prepared to comment on that point yet at this point in time. I've got to do some more homework."