Student arrest at UNCG highlights restrictive assembly policy
Procedural skirmishes over free speech and public assembly have occasionally erupted on the campus of UNCG, with the College Libertarians protesting and ultimately defeating a proposed “free speech zone” about two years ago. And in March, Tim Hopkins, a seasoned activist and self-described revolutionary communist, was arrested for trespassing during a protest against the College Republicans on the final day of the group’s “Morals Week.”
Hopkins was found guilty on Aug. 28, as supporters filled two rows in a Guilford County courtroom.
Meanwhile, a second arrest stemming from the March 30 “Morals Week” gathering has garnered far less public attention, but highlights the university’s handling of assembly by its own students. One reason might be because university police issued the arrest warrant for student Laura Steigerwald more than a week after the incident.
Steigerwald, a political science major from Hickory who is now a sophomore, said she had been present to protest against the College Republicans’ planned events every day of the weeklong series. The themes – among them “Terrorism Awareness Day” and “Straight Pride Day” – for each day had been considered provocative by the College Republicans’ counterparts on the left, and a broad array of campus groups, students and community activists turned out to express their disgust.
The March 30 event in front of Jackson Library was billed as a “PETA Barbecue.” No conversion to the cause of animal rights had taken place among the UNCG Republicans; their event reconfigured “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” as “People for the Eating of Tasty Animals.”
One of the groups that turned up to express an alternate perspective on the College Republicans’ activities was Food Not Bombs, an anarchist group with no campus affiliation that serves free meals to homeless people and occasionally provides free catering service for political events (Disclosure: This writer is active with Food Not Bombs).
Food Not Bombs was told by police that the group would not be allowed to serve food without a permit, said Alex Clute, a senior at UNCG studying biology who was volunteering that day.
“Since the cops were distracted, I kept handing out food,” Clute said. “They said we needed a permit to serve food. The cops were so distracted by the ruckus that they didn’t do anything. They griped at me for handing out food. I said, ‘These are my friends. We’re just sharing food.'”
Estimates of the crowd size by police and demonstrators range from 200 to 300; Clute’s comments suggest that the police lost control of the crowd. A new group, Cakalak Thunder drum corps, arrived on the scene after Food Not Bombs and started drumming. The police asked them to leave, but the group defied orders.
“They kind of ignored them pretty much,” Clute said. “The cops seemed to be at a loss and out of their element.”
Steigerwald had already spoken once to the police before they pulled her aside during Cakalak Thunder’s performance.
“I went over to talk to them,” she said. “They were saying, ‘You have to follow procedure.’ I asked, ‘What is the procedure?’ And they couldn’t tell me.”
Later, Steigerwald said she was dancing on the outside of a circle formed by Cakalak Thunder on College Avenue when one of the university police officers asked to speak to her. By her account, she expressed misgivings about being singled out for their attention and said unless the officer planned to arrest her she would go back and resume dancing.
That appears to be what got her in trouble.
About a week later, Steigerwald said she received a phone call from a university police officer stating that they had a warrant for her arrest. The student said she asked the police if she could come back the next day because of a scheduling conflict. She said she thought she had received assurance of the police’s cooperation, but at 7 p.m. that evening two police officers arrived at her dorm hall, handcuffed her and escorted her downtown to the magistrate’s office.
Steigerwald is charged with a misdemeanor for failing to disperse when commanded, a Vietnam-era statute that dates back to 1969. The statute states that “any law enforcement official or public official responsible for keeping the peace may issue a command to disperse… if he believes that a riot, or disorderly conduct by an assemblage of three or more persons, is occurring.” So rare is the application of the statute that a clerk at the Guilford County Courthouse expressed surprise recently when he heard the charge.
In a comment left on a website set up by Steigerwald, a person identified as “Nego” took responsibility on Cakalak Thunder’s behalf for the crowd’s defiance of police orders.
“I just want to make it clear to everyone that Cakalak Thunder takes full responsibility for the events that unfolded on the Friday of ‘Morals Week,'” the April 24 statement reads. “We challenged the College Republicans to a public beat battle as a way to demoralize them (ha) and throw a little party for the folx [SIC] who had been actively opposing their offensive activities on campus all week. We had a whole theatrical and quite comical plan about how to stage the ‘beat battle,’ which [we] would of course win, and then just jam out for the crowd.”
The performance became a protest of what the musicians considered police repression.
“We (Cakalak Thunder) were told to leave, and did not,” the statement continues. “And certainly our presence and obstinance [SIC] in the face of their attempted repression was what led to the ensuing protest/dance party in defiance of police orders. We are prepared to accept full responsibility… for asserting our rights.”
So far, Steigerwald and her fellow protester, Tim Hopkins, are the ones paying the consequences. Steigerwald’s case goes before a Guilford County district judge on Sept. 12. She expects to receive a sentence of 10 hours of community service in exchange for having the offense wiped clean from her record – a standard resolution for a first-time offender.
Steigerwald and other activists point to the university’s exacting policies on outdoor assemblies and free speech as a contributing factor to the arrests and the crowd’s defiance of the police.
Following the College Libertarians’ challenge to the university’s policy of restricting political expression to free speech zones, UNCG implemented a new policy limiting outdoor assemblies and what it terms “distribution/petitioning” on university property to “departments, affiliated student organizations, students, faculty and staff” and guests invited by affiliated student organizations or the university.
Affiliated campus groups must notify the police of their plans to assemble at least 12 hours in advance; unaffiliated persons or groups with a written invitation from an official host must alert the authorities at least 48 hours before the event. Many of the groups that turned out to express their opposition to the College Republicans during the group’s “Moral’s Week” were reportedly not affiliated groups and did not have permission from the police to be there. Steigerwald said she was part of a campus anti-war group that was then unaffiliated and remains so today.
“I think they want complete control of what happens,” Steigerwald said. “They always say, ‘This has nothing to do with what you’re saying, you just have to go about it the right way.’ There are so many hoops. They need IDs. Why do we need a teacher-advisor [to be an affiliated group]? How do groups get started if we’re not allowed to meet anywhere until we’re affiliated?”
Robert Sinnott, a junior who is a past president of the College Libertarians, said the assembly policy is so broadly written that it opens the way for arbitrary enforcement.
“Nobody’s allowed on campus and they can arrest anybody at any time because they can’t define what an assembly is,” he said. “Which technically means that if you want to play Frisbee with your friends, you’ve got to get permission from the police. It was never written to be enforced universally; it was written to be enforced on very specific occasions for the basic maintenance of authority.”
In addition to the state charge, Steigerwald was hit by four university administrative charges related to her refusal to speak to the police during the Cakalak Thunder performance, including one that alleges she falsified her identity. Steigerwald said the latter charge was dropped once she cleared up the confusion.
A charge notification form alleges that Steigerwald “did not comply with the directives of a university police officer; provided false information; acted out defiantly by ignoring an officer’s request, and did not follow proper university protocol according to university assembly policy.”
After a hearing before Associate Dean of Students Brett Carter, who Steigerwald said exercised his discretion to not hear from two witnesses she had lined up, the student was found responsible for violations of the student code of conduct. As punishment, she is placed on probation through the spring of 2008, required to perform 25 hours of community service, required to attend a “making good choices” workshop and required to write a five-page paper reflecting on what she has learned from her experience.
Calls and e-mails to Carter and another administrator in the Dean of Students office beginning on the afternoon of Aug. 31 before the Labor Day weekend were not returned. Spokesman Dan Nonte, who was reached on Monday, said the university was unable to comment by deadline.
It appears that the political science major might have learned something about the American tradition of dissent.
“They just don’t want me around,” Steigerwald said. “They want me to shut up. They want to use me as an example. So I will be an example. I want to be like, ‘This is what’s happening to me. Do you want this to be the way it is?'”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.