BY TREVOR GARDNER
After choosing to participate in a sit-in at Massachusetts Hall near former President Neil Rudenstein’s office with other Harvard students, four law students received a disciplinary sanction very different from that of their fellow protesters. As a result of the decision, Ashwini Sukthankar, Fatma Marouf, Faisal Chaudhry and Aaron Bartley now face the prospect of having to explain a “reprimand” notice placed on their transcript, which will likely be reviewed by the Board of Bar Examiners in whatever state they seek bar certification.
The Law School expressly addressed the issue of civil disobedience in its 2001-2002 Catalog, mentioning the 2001 sit-in specifically. The section states that the school’s Administrative Board “imposed the sanction of a ‘reprimand’ ” in response to the protestor’s actions. The catalog outlines each law student’s right to a full disciplinary hearing in front of the Administrative Board and his or her right to be represented by counsel at such a hearing. Prof. Lani Guineer and John Fitzpatrick, supervisor for the Prison Legal Assistance Project, represented the law students. The Administrative Board guidelines allow the body to choose from four forms of punishment: Reprimand, Suspension, Dismissal and Expulsion.
During the final week of May, which coincided with exam week, the Board reached the decision to hold a hearing to consider disciplinary action for the student protesters. The hearing took place on June 1, well after most students left campus.
The punishment levied by the Administrative Board was the least severe of the four disciplinary actions at its disposal. However, the punishment is distinguished from those passed down by the Kennedy School of Government, the Graduate School of Arts and Science, and Harvard College in its impact on the affected students’ career aspirations and earning potential. The Kennedy School and GSAS refrained from giving a punishment, while Harvard College issued a formal warning.
Harvard College student Matthew Skomarovsky disagreed with the law school’s handling of the discplinary proceedings.
“I think the way the law school dealt with the disciplinary proceedings was ridiculous, hiring an investigator to go after the four law school students who sat in while hardly anyone was around campus to notice. [I] think their punishment was excessive [and] unfair, especially since it was much harsher than that given to the undergraduates, and other graduates were not punished at all,” said Skomarovsky.
Approximately 80 Harvard students actively participated in organizing the action. Initially, 46 students occupied Massachusetts Hall, 24 of whom remained in the hall during the entire three-week period.
According to The Harvard Crimson, the law school Administrative Board asked Janet Katz, Law School senior reference librarian, to investigate the defendants’ culpability. The law student protestors objected to Katz’s role in the disciplinary process, specifically her testimony reflecting interviews she said she conducted with Harvard staff members. In recalling the conversations during testimony, Katz mentioned allegations of student misconduct ranging from shouts of “shame on you” directed toward university staff to their circulation of offensive body odors. The Crimson also reported the testimony of Elizabeth Guerrero, assistant to the vice president of Government, Community and Public Affairs, who claimed to be affected by an affliction very similar to post-traumatic stress order as a result of her exposure to the protestors, reportedly saying, “I experienced sleeplessness, stomach aches and frequent headaches.”
The law school was confronted with the similar question of how to discipline law students for civil disobedience in May of 1992 when eight law students, dissatisfied with the level of minority and female representation on the law school faculty, conducted a sit-in in Dean Clark’s office. The Living Wage protestors claim the ’92 protestors were given a less severe penalty.
Dean Richardson declined comment on the matter, stating that, as a policy, the law school administration does not discuss individual cases of disciplinary action. The Dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, offered a similar response, saying that it would be inappropriate for him to discuss cases that had been presented to the college’s administrative board.
Skomarovsky said that the penalty against the protestors should have been uniform.
“Students at the College made it clear to our ad board that we expected to receive the same punishment because we participated as equals in the sit-in,” he said. “The same goes for everyone who sat in.”
The law school’s unique reaction to the civil disobedience action raises unanswered questions of whether the law school administration deems law students especially culpable for participation in civil disobedience actions because of a special duty to uphold rules and regulations given the nature of their field of study.