Dean of Students threatening retaliation against campout participants, targets UT Watch

May 3, 2005

The UT Office of the Dean of Students is threatening to punish members of UT Watch as well as other students not affiliated with the group for holding an Affordable Education Campout on April 20-22. Annemarie Seifert, Sr. Program Coordinator in the Office of the Dean of Students, is attempting to enforce arcane regulations on free speech found in the university code governing student behavior(pdf). In particular, Student Judicial Services, which according to the agencys website is responsible for "investigating alleged violations of institutional rules and for implementing the discipline process", is pursuing possible punishment of several students - some who aren't even campout participants - for allegedly sleeping on campus as part of the campout. The administration has also hinted that these students may be in trouble for briefly pinning a banner to a wall on the Main Mall.

SJS has contacted a number of former and current UT Watch members for "discussions" on the alleged rule violations. Several of these students were originally written-up by representatives of the Dean of Students on the morning of Friday, April "for violating the University's no-sleeping-on campus" policy, according to the Daily Texan. At 7:30am on Friday morning the campout participants were greeted by five UTPD officers and Dean of Students Teresa Graham Brett. A member of UT Watch was told that the officers and Brett "had been watching for 20 minutes," ostensibly to determine if the campers were indeed sleeping.

However, the University has no such rules banning sleeping even though administrators produced a sheet on the first day of the campout with regulations citing a no-camping rule. No one at SJS or the Dean of Students has been able to reproduce this mystery document.

UT Watch believes that campout participants are being selectively targeted for harassment, intimidation, and possible discipline because of its outspoken role in opposing some university policy. We have come to this determination based on past events that involved sleeping on campus that were not punished. For example, students and other members of the university community held a 24-hour vigil last September in response to an act of vandalism on the MLK, Jr. statue on East Mall. Some participants slept in the vicinity of the statue and report that at least one university administrator was present. No action was taken against the scofflaw sleepyheads. Also, in April of this year several organizations staged a "Shack-a-Thon" to raise awareness about poverty. As part of the 3-day event, participants slept in six shacks covered with tarps. Administrators, as far as we know, took no action against these flagrant violators of the elusive no-sleeping-rule.

Thus, it seems that the University has chosen to selectively target UT Watch for sleeping on campus. While the Dean of Students has been unable to produce a rule that prohibits sleeping on campus, the Student Organization Manual lays out quite clearly the fundamental freedoms of assembly and speech that students enjoy at UT: "University persons and organizations may publicly assemble on campus in any place where, at the time of the assembly, the persons assembling are permitted to be, without advance permission, as long as there is no disruption to other University activities."

In addition to charging students with sleeping on campus, SJS has notified UT Watch that it will take action against the group and four of its representatives for pinning a banner to a wall in front of the Tower, citing complex rules governing just where banners are allowed on campus. Such nitpicking interferes with students' constitutional right to free speech and is unbefitting for a university that purports to be a center for the exchange of ideas. The campout banner in no way interfered with the "business" of the university nor was it a UT Watch banner, but rather a banner sponsored by the participants of the campout - individuals from other organizations or from no organization at all. It is unfair for SJS to target UT Watch and its membership.

UT Watch has been more than cooperative with the complex and often arbitrary time, place, and manner restrictions that the University has chosen to promulgate. The Campout was a permitted event and the organization voluntary took down the tents at 8am each morning of the campout in compliance with university rules barring "exhibits" from being displayed on campus from 8am to 5pm.

The Dean of Students has ordered several students to appear for "discussions" with Student Judicial Services, meetings they insist are not part of disciplinary proceedings, but simply informal tete-a-tetes. Nonetheless, UT Watch believes that in light of any legitimate complaint against individuals or organizations, the administration should take no further action after these meetings. We would like to also remind Dean of Students Teresa Graham Brett of her thoughts on student activists when she came to UT in 2002. As she told the Daily Texan in April 2002: "In a lot of ways it's the students who protest, who are really active, who are very vocal that really care about the campus," she said. "Activist students are the ones who are really invested and care about the campus."