Group Punishment

Dissent over Rule Changes at the U

Illustrator: Ruby Guthrie

Groups are not supposed to be above the organization that grants them existence. This general principle is built into our systems of checks-and-balances and stretches from the heights of political domain to student groups here at the University of Minnesota and beyond. This is the reasoning of the Board of Regents for the U to enact a controversial change in the Student Conduct Code, but it is neglecting to take into account a crucial factor: group solidarity.

The change in question is to section 8.4 of the Student Conduct Code. This section states a student group can be punished for the actions of its members if that group sponsored, organized, or endorsed the conduct. People are up-in-arms over the addition to this section, allowing student groups to be punished for any conduct an officer knew (or should have known about) but did not prevent that occurs during or directly related to a group event or activity. Now we know the game, let’s meet the players.

The purpose of this change is to target Fraternities and any other clubs that throw parties, according to Darrin Rosha in the City Pages piece on this issue. The reasoning behind this boils down to underage drinking, the hope being that the change will push student groups to the straight-and-narrow.

Given the anti-drinking overtones of the change, one would expect the outcry to come from party-heavy groups. This is not the case. The real outcry has come from the usual denouncers of the party-heavy groups. The protestors, as I will refer to them, are those socially conscious groups who make their voices heard, an example being Differences Organized.

The protestors feel this change is a dangerous step in squelching their right to protest. They worry that the change would allow the group to be shut down if their members form some sort of demonstration outside of the organization. They would be culpable if, for example, they hosted a discussion on a sensitive topic that resulted in some members protesting in a manner that disrupted the academic environment (section 4.2 of the Student Conduct Code).

A few student groups spoke out against the change in a small gathering on February 8th for the vote that was postponed (for unrelated reasons). To these groups, the Board’s actions are just another step to silence them. Both sides seem to be talking right past each other.

I disagree with both sides in some ways. My issues with the student groups’ stance are twofold. First, the change is not made to target the groups who are fighting it. They are worried about an unjustified slippery slope, which leads into the second issue: the intent of protest. If the University were to use this addition to shut down a group for protest, the action would backfire tremendously. The result would be more than the small gathering before the vote.

This use of the policy seems unlikely, but I can see it from the University’s side. They provide groups organization assistance, so why shouldn’t they be able to sanction groups when their members act out of turn? Besides, I have little patience for a protest that gives in at the first stumbling block. If restructuring yourself as a non-profit or just a grassroots gathering is too much, why should anyone take your protest seriously?

The Board is overlooking a crucial factor in these discussions, what I alluded to at the start: group solidarity. Let’s look at what happens when someone within a student group does something stupid, something punishment-worthy even. If the group were to go to the higher authority of the University, then they could be punished. This incentivizes the groups to handle matters internally, making them act as the de facto authority, a move that obviously runs counter the Board’s intent. They could allow for groups who remove and report the member to be safe, but these groups often act as support structures, so pushing groups to turn away members in need would not be ideal.

This policy change moves in directions I don’t agree with, but as a move in-and-of itself, it seems to be of little consequence.