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The obscene obscenity policy from the U of Arizona Dean of Students

When hundreds of students stripped down to their knickers for the last week’s ZonaZoo Undie Run, should they have been cited and potentially punished by the Dean of Students for a Student Code of Conduct violation?

Should the students who produced this week’s production of The Vagina Monologues be punished for “lewd or obscene behavior” at the discretion of the UA Administration? Should students who sell “I Love Boobies” breast cancer-awareness bracelets and organizations that hold events on the proper use of contraceptives be able to be brought up on Code of Conduct violations for their actions? Should students of legal age who choose of their own free will to appear in adult films be able to be punished by their school for their off-campus actions?

The Code of Conduct changes proposed by the Associate Dean of Students would allow these students – and any others that the administration deems to be under the broad, undefined terms of the altered clause – to be cited, tried in the administration’s secret court with limited protection for the rights of the accused, and potentially punished for these actions.

If these changes are approved by the Board of Regents (who will do a first reading of the changes at their meeting next Thursday), the Code of Conduct will allow students to be punished for anything and everything the Dean of Students finds it convenient to label as “obscene” or “lewd.” Consider the proposed changes [PDF]:

5-308 – Student Code of Conduct (Prohibited Conduct)

23. Engaging in any illegal sexual offense, including but not limited to, sexual assault, public sexual indecency, or indecent exposure. Sexual misconduct.

Sexual misconduct means engaging in any non-consensual sexual contact with another person(s), indecent exposure, or any obscene or lewd behavior

“Obscene” is not defined; “lewd” is not defined. Unlike proceedings in a non-kangaroo court, there are no precedents from which some sort of definition can be derived.

Does “fuck the Dean of Students’ office” qualify as such? What about an in-class reading of Lolita, that pedophilic masterpiece, or any number of works that have been considered “obscene” over the course of history? Or perhaps “Robert Shelton is a dick?” Breast-feeding an infant? The “Undie Run” mentioned above? No limitations — beyond Her Deanship’s good graces — prevent the sanctioning of such behavior.

These concerns have been waved off by the administration — as is to be expected  — emphasizing that these sanctions are merely ‘administrative’. Yet this undercuts their argument for the sanctions in the first place: If these sanctions meant nothing, they would have no impact on student behavior. In the real world, these sanctions are very real.

Even these concerns would be slightly ameliorated by the presence of basic standards of a fair trial: a jury of one’s peers, say, or the provision of appropriate counsel (even a university ombudsman). Yet according to a report from the recent GPSC meeting (via our tipline), elimination of these sorts of checks are exactly the point of this new provision (emphasis added):

Apparently, the current language in the Code of Conduct is problematic, because students are starting to hire attorneys to represent them when they are charged with offenses by the University. These attorneys are (according to Veda Kowalski) helping students be found innocent under the premise that the University has not met the criminal standard to prove that a crime was committed, hence there is no proof of an “illegal” act.

When the university redefines terms to eliminate any sort of outside check on its behavior, there will be nothing standing between its whim and an official demerit on a student’s transcript. One check that students could turn to will be eliminated by this policy.

Yet no one expects that the Dean’s office will suddenly start cracking down on “breast molding” parties, and it will still issue intra-university sanctions for — let us not mince words — genuine cases of sexual harassment. The now-dated chalking incident offers a indication of how this policy will be used. Chalking, as was repeatedly pointed out, was an activity that a wide slew of groups behaved in, on campus, without administration approval and without punishment. It was only when that behavior went against the university’s ideological viewpoints that they brought down the proverbial hammer, calling in the police and filing both criminal charges and administrative ones. It was only a last-minute, non-sanctioned protest that led the university to calculate that sanctions weren’t worth the trouble.

So it will be with this new, purposefully vague “sexual harassment.” Signs comparing general fund cuts to an abortion will be allowed and implicitly encouraged at a lower level. When behavior contravenes the accepted university views — when it conflicts with the social justice mandates of ResLife, perhaps, or when it is used to protest against university actions, or when it goes against the school’s fatwah against alcohol consumption — administrative sanctions will be doled out.

It is worth note that there is no statistically compelling or even socially defensible reason to enact this change now; there has been no marked increase in sexual assault arrests, and no widely public assertion that sexual assault cases are not being tried fairly and must therefore be actioned by the UA administration. The approval of this over-reaching, overly-punitive alternation would not help the victims of sexual assault, whose plight would already be well-heard in a real court of law.

Why make this change now now? The obvious, cynical answer is that it’s best to make such changes conveniently around finals time, when only a few appartchiks and drunks are paying any attention. The less obvious, but more cynical answer is that this comes when the university administration is looking at a serious, permanent decrease in spending. When the size of the pie is reduced, each hungry division gnawing on the empty plate will fight even harder to hold on to what it can. By instituting a unilateral expansion in administrative sanctions, the DoS will inherently increase the number of sanctions it must deal with – a dynamic already observed after it started sanctioning off-campus partying behavior with the Red Tag program.

Watch as they plead before the budget office, and before (most loathsomely of all) the SSF Allocation Board. “Sanctions are going up – we need more funding to keep up!” They need more of your money, to punish you for more unnecessary things – never mind that they manufactured the demand for their own product with this policy modification.

One might hope ASA, the student regents, or the student governments stepped in to fight for student rights. It would be nice if a letter campaign towards the regents, or making a speech at the board meeting, could somehow stop this in its tracks. But we’ve covered this business too long to believe such things. Just as students came to accept the absurdity of the Red Tag program as a norm, so it will slowly learn to accept that it is the university that determines students’ rights – and that the Constitution is merely a historical document to be studied for the upcoming midterm.

Anna Swenson blogs at the Desert Lamp. She is a contributor to the Student Free Press Association.

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