Federal lawsuit filed against UC Berkeley officials

Six individuals, including former and current UC Berkeley students, have filed a federal class action lawsuit alleging that four campus officials violated their constitutional rights by punitively arresting and jailing 66 people participating in a December 2009 demonstration.

According to the complaint — filed Oct. 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California — the plaintiffs seek damages for violations they alleged to have occurred during the “Open University” demonstration in Wheeler Hall, which occurred from Dec. 7 to Dec. 11, 2009.

The four campus officials — Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Harry Le Grande, UCPD Chief Mitch Celaya and UCPD Lt. Marc DeCoulode — were served with the complaint Monday afternoon, said Kevin Brunner, an attorney with Siegel and Yee, the law firm representing the individuals filing the lawsuit.

The complaint seeks to stop the officials from continuing what it alleges is a policy of sending nonviolent detainees taken into custody during campus protests to the Alameda County Jail rather than citing and releasing them.

“The policy of jailing non-violent protestors is punitive and a violation of the protestors’ rights to freedom of speech and assembly,” the complaint states.

According to campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore, the lawsuit is still being reviewed by campus counsel.

“We can’t comment on the details of the lawsuit at this time because it is still being reviewed by counsel,” she said. “Nevertheless, we are confident that the university’s actions were legally justified.”

In December 2009, campus activists staged the demonstration, which, according to the complaint, aimed to “draw attention to … recent budget cuts and tuition hikes as well as the misplaced priorities of the UC administration.” After four days of demonstrations in Wheeler Hall beginning Dec. 7, 2009, UCPD officers arrested 66 individuals in the early morning of Friday, Dec. 11, 2009.

At the time, campus officials maintained the decision to conduct arrests was made after occupiers appeared to be proceeding with plans for a concert that might disrupt the beginning of finals that were slated to be held in the hall early Saturday morning.

According to the complaint, the arrests occurred without warning, despite the fact that the campus administration had agreed to allow the event to occur. The complaint states that the students believed they had permission to remain in Wheeler Hall until Saturday morning and that the retraction of permission to remain was not communicated to students.

The individuals who were arrested and jailed suffered emotional distress, embarrassment and humiliation, as well as damage to their reputations and future job prospects as a result of actions by the defendants, the complaint states.

“It was a terrible experience for us all, and there were many people for whom it was incredibly frightening,” said Callie Maidhof, a plaintiff in the lawsuit and a campus graduate student. “Clearly, it was a punishment, and it is one of the different ways that the campus has been issuing punitive measures against protesters.”

She added that the lawsuit is not just for the students who were arrested and jailed but for the larger student body.

“We will fight these policies, these institutions and even these individuals,” she said. “These are individuals who made individual choices that hurt people, that have hurt us, and so we’re going to use whatever means are available to us to fight against that.”

According to Thomas Frampton, a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law and member of the Campus Rights Project, a group that worked with Siegel and Yee to bring about the lawsuit, one of the goals of filing the lawsuit is to ensure accountability.

“The main point is to ensure that there’s accountability when University officials violate the constitutional rights of their students and community members,” he said in an email. “It seems increasingly clear that the University will only respond to litigation. It’s disheartening, but that’s where we’re at.”