Republished from Refined Right
The University of Houston Student Government Association announced sanctions against SGA Vice President Rohini Sethi for saying “#AllLivesMatter” in a recent social media firestorm which engulfed the 42,000 student campus, sparking calls for her resignation.
Among the sanctions are requirements that Sethi serve a 50-day suspension from all official SGA duties without pay, mandatory attendance at a diversity training workshop, and mandatory attendance at three U of H cultural events per month, December excluded.
The sanctions also require her to draft a “letter of reflection” which “demonstrates an understanding of her responsibility as a public figure”, and give a public presentation about “the knowledge she has gained about cultural issues facing our society” at the upcoming Sep. 28 SGA Senate meeting.
The sanctions stem from a Jul. 7 Facebook post Sethi shared in which she said “Forget #BlackLivesMatter; more like #AllLivesMatter” the day three police officers were murdered in Baton Rouge, LA.
Sethi deleted the post but student newspaper The Daily Cougar published a screenshot:
Sethi’s Facebook post in question, later deleted
Sethi apologized but was sanctioned nonetheless.
“Since her original post, I have not felt that she has understood or respected how her actions have affected the people around her, as well as the reputation of SGA and the university,” SGA President Shane Smith said in a Jul. 29 statement announcing Sethi’s sanctions.
“I believe that many of the actions she took only further escalated the situation and were not in the best interests of the organization.”
During a Jul. 27 SGA meeting which lasted almost four hours, Smith was granted special emergency one-time powers to sanction Sethi.
The University of Houston appears to have distanced itself from SGA’s actions.
“The University of Houston has become aware that the Student Government Association (SGA) has suspended its vice president, Ms. Rohini Sethi, from participating in SGA activities,” the University of Houston said in an Aug. 1 statement.
“Actions by SGA, a registered student organization subject to its own governance, are not University actions and do not affect the academic standing of a student at the University of Houston. The University of Houston continues to stand firm in support of free speech and does not discipline students for exercising their Constitutional rights.”
Sethi’s sanctions for expressing a political opinion come at a time in which concerns continue to grow about the state of free speech rights on college campuses.
“I view Rohini’s suspension and all her sanctions as abhorrent,” said Matthew Wiltshire, former SGA Supreme Court Associate Justice until he resigned in protest over what he says is the organization’s refusal to support Sethi’s free speech rights.
“They are precisely the type of thought policing that produce a chilling effect on the minds of young people. SGA made it clear that, in their view, anyone who disagrees with them should sit silently by or be attacked for expressing a contrary opinion”
“I think it says that SGA doesn’t know how to run its own meetings and the fact that they need to make up a power they can’t grant in order to get what they want shows how far they are stretching,” Wiltshire said of the extraordinary powers granted to SGA President Smith to sanction Sethi.
“Free speech is a principle of our society–not merely a law. By trying to grant the President dictatorial powers they have effectively said that free expression is a nuisance they need to deal with rather than a principle they should uphold.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonpartisan organization the self-stated mission of which is “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities” such as free speech rights.
FIRE points out that while student-run organizations at universities generally enjoy broad latitude in how they operate, student governments at public universities like that at U of H must make viewpoint-neutral decisions:
But is the Student Government Association a regular student organization, as the University of Houston suggests? Or are student governments at public universities more like governmental actors?
The answer lies in the powers wielded by the student government. When a student government at a public institution administers mandatory fees collected from students to support student groups, it is “intertwined with the state in collecting, budgeting, and allocating funds to create a forum for speech,” and thus “acts under the color of state law.” Amidon v. Student Ass’n of the State Univ. of N.Y. at Albany, 399 F. Supp. 2d 136, 145 (N.D.N.Y. 2005), aff’d, 508 F.3d 94 (2d Cir. 2007). The student government must therefore make its decisions in a viewpoint-neutral manner. If a student government entrusted with this power disburses or withholds mandatory student activity fees based on a student group’s viewpoint, the public institution must intervene.
In a joint statement released Aug. 5 Smith and Sethi announced her sanctions would be dropped.
In place, Sethi has agreed to take an unpaid leave of absence until the Aug. 22 start of the school year and will voluntarily follow through with the other sanctions previously placed on her.
But by punishing Sethi for speech protected by the First Amendment, the SGA may have violated not only Sethi’s First Amendment rights, but by extension Section 2.01 of its own constitution which states:
As a component of University of Houston, a public educational institution of the State of Texas, the Student Government Association shall take no action abridging the rights, immunities and privileges granted to students under the Constitution of the United States of America, the Constitution of the State of Texas, U.S. federal law or under the laws of the State of Texas. Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to deny or abridge these rights, immunities and privilege
While Sethi could have caused a stink over her sanctions by racing to any media outlet who would hear her story, she initially appeared to have accepted them.
”UH SGA has made its decision. I disagree with the sanctions taken against me by my SGA because I believe I have done a great deal to better understand the controversy I caused,” Sethi said in a separate Facebook post.
“I have also apologized for my words because no student should feel as though I do not have their best interests at heart. Even so, I will abide by the sanctions for as long as they are in place.”