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Harvard Law School affiliates are circulating a petition calling for the Law School Administrative Board to stop investigating three students involved in an October 26 silent protest organized by the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, a campus activist group.
The protest took place during the Law School’s 45th Annual Fall Reunion. Student organizers distributed flyers and silently held up signs calling on Harvard to divest its endowment from companies tied to the prison industry while Law School Dean John F. Manning ’82 spoke at an alumni event.
The Administrative Board subsequently opened an investigation on student protestors Amanda T. Chan, Felipe D. Hernández, and Anna L. Nathanson for alleged violations of the Law School’s Protest and Dissent Guidelines, according to the petition.
“During that event, the Student Dissenters followed the Protest Guidelines by displaying signs peacefully, silently, expressing their free speech, and not interrupting the speaker in an open event,” the petition reads. “We are gravely concerned by the Board’s opaque and unfair process as well as the threat of severe punitive consequences, including delayed graduation, suspension, and expulsion.”
According to the Law School’s guidelines, students may stand or display signs noiselessly so long as they do not interfere with the audience’s view or ability to pay attention to the speaker. The guidelines also restrict signs and prolonged standing to the back of the room where the protest occurs.
The petition — which calls on the Administrative Board to drop the investigation — is addressed to Manning, University President Lawrence S. Bacow, and various law school professors and administrators, including the members of the Harvard Law School Administrative Board.
Specific recipients the letter names include acting Administrative Board chair and Law School professor Ruth L. Okediji, Law School professor Richard J. Lazarus, Law School professor Andy L. Kaufman ’51, Assistant Dean and Registrar Lisa Burns, Associate Dean N. Catherine Claypoole, Dean of Students Marcia L. Sells, and Associate Dean and Dean for Development and Alumni Relations Steven Oliveira.
As of Sunday morning, the petition has accumulated more than 1,050 signatures, according to Chan.
Law School spokesperson Jeff A. Neal declined to comment on individual students’ administrative board cases due to federal privacy law. University spokesperson Jason A. Newton also declined to comment.
The petition states the Administrative Board did not conduct its investigation promptly and has not yet allowed the students under investigation to examine the evidence against them.
“It has been 182 days since the protest,” the petition reads. “The Ad Board’s unreasonable delays have added tremendous uncertainty to the lives, graduation, bar passage, and career prospects of the student protestors.”
Chan, one of the three “student dissenters” named in the Administrative Board investigation, said the Administrative Board first notified her of the investigation on Feb. 5 — months after the Oct. 26 incident. She said she studied the protest and dissent guidelines at the Law School “very carefully” before engaging in the silent protest.
“To this day, not a single administrator, a single professor, a single disciplinarian has ever stated what action exactly that I have taken that may have violated the guidelines,” Chan said. “Yet here I am 182 days later, still under investigation, still unsure if I'm going to be able to graduate on time, still unsure if I'll even be charged in the matter.”
She also said that she wished Harvard expended more resources on helping students and workers instead of conducting the Administrative Board investigation.
“I wish that Harvard could expend its resources and time on a million different things that include helping the community, instead of finding different ways to suppress speech, especially the speech of people who care about racial justice,” she said.
The petition also took issue with the fact that the Administrative Board’s investigation into the protest focused on three students of color.
Hernández, a student protestor, said he has personally faced challenges during the coronavirus pandemic, which he said disproportionately impacts people of color. He said he believes the continued investigation demonstrates a lack of compassion from the University while the petition denotes support from his peers.
“There's a community out there who cares about us and is ready to organize and mobilize in support of us, particularly when we're facing an institution like Harvard Law School that for months has not cared about my family or my community, at least given that appearance,” Hernández said.
Nathanson, the third student in the investigation, agreed that Harvard should not dedicate its resources to pursuing the investigation in light of the ongoing pandemic. She also said the Law School’s decision to investigate without “a lot of grounding” could endanger free speech on campus.
HPDC alumni organizer Amber A. James ’11 echoed similar concerns about free speech within the Law School’s mission to teach about constitutional rights.
“The idea that they're taking action against students who are exercising those rights in the least disruptive way possible is a pretty scary and dangerous prospect,” she said.
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.
—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.
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