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Sacramento Bee Op-ed: Let UC Davis Probes Take Their Course

Posted By Kevin R. Johnson, Dec 5, 2011

This op-ed appeared in Sunday's edition of The Sacramento Bee.

Viewpoints: Let UC Davis Probes Take Their Course
By Kevin R. Johnson, Dean of the UC Davis School of Law

The video of UC Davis police pepper-spraying peaceful protesters on Nov. 18 dominated the national and international news for days. Within hours of its posting on the Internet, video of the incident went viral and people instinctively began calling for the resignation of UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. The media has reported extensively that the board of the Davis Faculty Association, which represents 111 active faculty members, has called for the chancellor's resignation. More recently, more than 200 faculty members signed a letter rejecting the call for resignation as premature.

As a lawyer and dean of the UC Davis School of Law, I have a different perspective on the incident than some others. We must not be hurried into possibly ill-advised judgments. Immediate actions to ensure student safety have been taken. Now, basic principles of due process and fairness require that we collect and consider all the relevant facts before making more far-reaching decisions. I am heartened that the UC Davis Academic Senate, which represents the thousands of teaching faculty on the campus, has reserved judgment until it conducts its own investigation.

We all agree that the video of students being pepper-sprayed by UC Davis police is shocking. Just about everyone who sees the video – including Chancellor Katehi, who saw it later in the evening after the incident – is rightfully stunned.

University of California President Mark Yudof has called for a series of investigations, naming civil rights icon, law professor and former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso as chair of one of them. President Yudof, a constitutional law scholar, also created a committee to investigate possible changes in UC police policies, which govern campus police departments on all of the UC campuses.

These investigations will proceed with the fundamental constitutional acknowledgment that students enjoy a robust right to free expression and peaceful protest – part of the proud history of the University of California. The students are demonstrating against drastic fee increases caused by the state's budget crisis and a general – and accelerating – defunding of public education by the state of California. We all should applaud the students' passion for ensuring that public education remains accessible to students from all walks of life.

The university, of course, bears the responsibility of keeping students safe as they exercise their rights. University policy bars the placement of tents and other structures on the campus to protect students from violence, sexual assaults and sanitation issues, such as those that plague Occupy camps across the country. The university can constitutionally prohibit camping on university grounds. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, 1984, that overnight camping as a form of symbolic protest of homelessness is not protected by the First Amendment.

It was out of concern for student safety that Chancellor Katehi sought to remove the tents and encampments while preserving students' rights to peacefully protest. Chancellor Katehi says that she specifically instructed the police not to use violence to remove the encampments but to do so "peacefully and without incident," and that she never directed police to arrest students who were peacefully protesting. She also has said that the police were told directly that the administration did "not want to have another Berkeley," a reference to UC Berkeley police officers' use of batons the week before.

As Chancellor Katehi has stated, the buck for the pepper-spraying ultimately stops with her. Taking responsibility, she apologized to the entire student body and offered to meet personally with the students who were pepper-sprayed to apologize. She vowed to students that such violence would "never again" happen at UC Davis. The police chief and two police officers involved have been placed on administrative leave.

In a matter of days, Chancellor Katehi and President Yudof have taken the necessary first steps to guarantee student safety, stabilize a volatile situation, and start a process that is intended to get to the bottom of this entire mess. I believe that the investigations should be allowed to run their courses before further action is taken.

Before this horrible incident, Chancellor Katehi by most accounts had done an admirable job as the leader of UC Davis. I can tell you that as an administrator, Chancellor Katehi, an accomplished electrical and computer engineering scholar with many patents and publications to her credit, is direct, charismatic and extremely intelligent. In the two and a half years since she has been chancellor, she has taken the campus to new heights of respectability and spearheaded efforts to expand student access to UC Davis.

Long ago, and well before Nov. 18, Chancellor Katehi told the university's deans that it was time to make the campus more "student-centric." She understands the impacts of the fee increases on student lives and believes that UC Davis must respond to ensure that the students receive the education and university experience that they deserve.

Ultimately, we should allow the investigations of the pepper-spraying incident to run their courses. Only then can we, as a community, decide what changes and actions are needed. Due process of law and the integrity of our university require no less.