Today nineteen students and alumni filed a federal lawsuit against UC Davis over the University’s treatment of protesters during a Nov. 18 demonstration in which campus police were caught on video dousing seated protesters with pepper spray. The lawsuit seeks to determine why the University violated the demonstrators’ state and federal constitutional rights and seeks to result in better policies that will prevent repetition of such response to a non-violent protest. The lawsuit charges that Administration officials and the campus police department failed to properly train and supervise officers, resulting in series of constitutional violations against the demonstrators. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Northern California and cooperating attorneys.
On Nov. 18, students gathered in the quad on the UC Davis campus to demonstrate against ongoing tuition hikes, as well as against recent brutal treatment of demonstrators at UC Berkeley. UC Davis campus police arrived in riot gear, and officers threatened students, who were seated on the quad in a circle, and ordered them to disperse. When students remained seated to continue their demonstration, a UC Davis police officer repeatedly sprayed the line of protesters with pepper spray at point-blank range, while scores of other officers looked on. Another officer sprayed the demonstrators from behind. The seated students posed no physical threat to the officers. Pepper spray has excruciating effects that can last for days.
The lawsuit notes that the University’s response to seated student protesters amounts to unacceptable and excessive force that violates state and federal constitutional protections, including the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“This was my first demonstration. So many of my friends can barely make ends meet and then another tuition hike was proposed. We had no idea there would be police in riot gear or that we would be pepper-sprayed because we were making our voices heard,” said David Buscho, one of the plaintiffs. Buscho, a Mechanical Engineering student, was in searing pain and had trouble breathing after being pepper-sprayed directly in the face.
“The University needs to respect students’ rights to make our voices heard, especially when we’re protesting University policies that impact our studies,” said Fatima Sbeih, a student plaintiff who joined the demonstration on the quad after returning from afternoon prayer. Sbeih was pepper-sprayed as well. She had previously been a volunteer paramedic and afterwards helped tend to other demonstrators who were in pain.
“Using military-grade pepper spray and police violence against non-violent student protesters violates the constitution, and it’s just wrong,” said Michael Risher, staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, and one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. “When the cost of speech is a shot of blinding, burning pepper spray in the face, speech is not free.”
“The University needs better policies on how it deals with protests and protesters. Students deserve to know what went wrong and how this could be allowed to happen. They want to make sure it never happens again,” said Mark E. Merin, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.
Documents subsequently received from the University of California indicate that the pepper spray used was military grade and, based on manufacturer instructions should be used from a minimum of six feet away – much farther than the close range at which the students were sprayed.
The suit was filed in the United States District Court, Eastern District of California. The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial, injunctive relief and damages. In addition to Risher and Merin, attorneys working on the suit are Alan Schlosser, Linda Lye and Novella Coleman for the ACLU-NC, as well as Meredith Wallis.
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