Analysis: Did Mac Donald Blockaders Violate Policy?

A protest that brought students together from across the Claremont Colleges may drive a wedge between their administrations. (Liam Brooks / The Student Life)

Claremont McKenna College announced Monday that it has found seven students responsible for violating college policies during a blockade of Black Lives Matter critic Heather Mac Donald’s Athenaeum talk in April.

A close reading of the policies that CMC references in public statements reveals plenty of wiggle room — and any ambiguity will be put to the test as other colleges at the Consortium choose to pursue investigations of their own. What will happen if students who were involved in similar activities are given different punishments depending on their school affiliation?

 

The Policies

In an extensive FAQ posted to its website, CMC lays out its case for the verdict and degree of the sanctions, which range from year-long suspensions to conduct probation.

The FAQ accuses the students of violating two separate policies: the CMC-specific Student Code of Conduct and the consortium-wide Claremont Colleges Policy on Demonstrations. However, it does not specify whether both of these policies were included as bases for the charges, and CMC spokesperson Joann Young declined TSL’s request for clarification.

The FAQ references three sections of the student code.

The first, Section 1, prohibits actions “which disturb or disrupt the normal functions of the College (including actions which interfere with maintaining order on campus).”

The second, Section 3, prohibits “damage to, misuse, or unauthorized use or possession of property,” including “entering, using, or occupying College property without authorization.”

The third, Section 8, covers “Aiding and Assisting.” It prohibits “actions that assist, urge, encourage or solicit another person to violate the Student Code Conduct and/or other College policy.”

The demonstration policy states that “participation in a demonstration that is materially disruptive and non-peaceful or involves the substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others on the property of any of the Claremont Colleges or of Claremont University Consortium or their affiliated institutions is prohibited.” It defines “disruptive actions or demonstrations” as “those that restrict free movement on any of the campuses, or interfere with, or impede access to, regular activities or facilities of any of the Colleges or CUC.”

 

The Defenses

Much of the student reaction to the announcement has focused on defending the merits of the blockaders’ cause in opposing Mac Donald’s racism.

For instance, an anonymous statement from early June, attributed to the students then under investigation by CMC, states that “students sought to protect their communities from the racist rhetoric of a woman whose scholarship justifies the extrajudicial killings of Black folks and other violence against marginalized groups.”

However, neither aforementioned policy includes language permitting CMC to take this into consideration when arriving at a verdict, and it seems that the college does not want to be perceived as having done so: the FAQ firmly asserts that “the College does not endorse the views of any speaker” and that “efforts to politicize and interfere with this process had no influence on timing or decisions.”

The anonymous statement also argues that the blockaders should not be sanctioned because they may not have known they were violating policy.

“At no time were students informed that their protest could lead to discipline. At no time were students asked to disperse. Before and during the protest, the College gave students the impression that they were properly exercising their right to free speech,” it states.

The FAQ dismisses this argument with regard to the student code.

“During new student orientation, students are introduced to the CMC Code of Conduct and understand it is their responsibility to familiarize themselves with standards of conduct as members of the community,” it states.

The demonstration policy similarly states that “ignorance of this policy or lack of intent to violate this policy is not an acceptable justification for violating it.”

However, Nana Gyamfi, an attorney with Justice Warriors 4 Black Lives, an organization that supported the students, noted in an interview with TSL that it also includes language that seemingly requires college officials to notify demonstrators that they are in violation of the policy.

“If an officer or designee of an affected College or CUC informs individuals in a given area that their collective actions are judged non-peaceful or disruptive and that they should disperse, individuals remaining may be charged, on their home campus, with a violation of this policy,” reads one paragraph. “All individuals who are engaged in disruptive or non-peaceful action will be notified that they are trespassing,” reads another.

There is no record of CMC having notified demonstrators that they were trespassing or were judged to be disruptive. The FAQ asserts merely that an attempt was made to do so: after “members of the Blockade Group began to break down the security fencing,” it states, “three Campus Safety Officers moved toward the Group to advise them to stop. However, before the officers could arrive, the Group had dismantled the fencing and streamed into the south side of Flamson Plaza.”

 

The Sentencing

According to the FAQ, ten cases were reviewed by “a panel of three trained community representatives” which consisted of a faculty member, a staff member, and a student, per CMC’s Student Conduct Process.

In three cases, the respondent was found not to have violated any policies. Young declined to comment on these cases.

In the remaining seven cases, the respondent was found responsible and the case was forwarded to an unnamed college official who chose the level of sanctions. Students who participated in the blockade but had mitigating factors (such as showing remorse) were placed on conduct probation. Students who participated without mitigating factors were given semester-long suspensions. Students who helped lead or organize the blockade were given year-long suspensions.

For the most part, CMC’s policy does not recommend specific sanctions for specific offenses, so the official presumably had a degree of flexibility in making these choices.

However, CMC does list a one-year suspension as the minimum recommended sanction for students found responsible for sexual misconduct, indicating perhaps that the college judged the violations of the blockade organizers to be comparably severe.

 

The Other Colleges

CMC states in the FAQ that it has “provided the other Colleges with access to our relevant video and photographic evidence and requested that they pursue disciplinary action against students who actively participated in the Blockade Group.”

A consortium-wide policy requires that “when students are on the campus of another Claremont College they are expected to respect the regulations of that College as well as those of their own College.” Therefore, if all the colleges are following the letter of the rules, they should theoretically all arrive at the same verdict about whether the blockade violated policy.

However, the screaming subtext to all this is that the colleges may not be motivated solely by blind adherence to the letter of the rules, but also by other factors—such as political values or public relations concerns—that may pressure them to bend the ambiguous or flexible aspects of the rules towards their desired outcome. And although the rules are the same between the colleges, these factors are radically different.

Thus, if the other Claremont Colleges arrive at differing verdicts on the blockade, it will serve as evidence that administrators have likely been taking into account more than just the letter of the rules in their deliberations. Their choices in the coming months will provide significant hints about what those underlying views may be.