In an all too common occurrence on college campuses in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and nationwide, a student finds herself facing consequences regarding a social media post. Rohini Sethi, a student at the University of Houston and a student government leader, was suspended by her Student Government Association with related sanctions after posting on Facebook regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. Sethi's post was made the evening of July 7th shooting in Dallas, Texas, that killed police officers. Sethi posted on Facebook, “Forget #BlackLivesMatter; more like AllLivesMatter.” Sethi would later delete the Facebook post, but only after numerous University of Houston students criticized the post as offensive and hateful.
It did not help that at the time Sethi was the vice president of University of Houston's student government association (SGA). Other students called for Sethi's to be dismissed from her position on the SGA. Sethi posted an apology, but this did not prevent the SGA from sanctioning her for the post. Sethi's apology follows below:
“Thursday night as our nation recoiled in shock, I took to Facebook and shared in a way that was inappropriate given the context and my position...In that moment, I did not act as your Vice President, I acted, in my own flawed way, as many do when presented with a tragedy from afar. My response has caused enormous pain for many members of our community, and I think it is high time that I clarify my statement...Visually we are black, white, tan, and a hundred shades between but we are all human, thus I believe that all lives matter. Let's all come together through conversations to reach unity. This is how we begin to set the standards for ourselves and our future, especially in times of adversity.”
A Deviation from Stated Policy
Despite the calls for Sethi's removal from the Student Government Association, doing so would require certain conditions to be met. Specifically, the SGA constitution would require the student body president, president of the student senate, and three-fourths of present student senators to approve impeachment proceedings against Sethi. If impeachment proceedings were approved, Sethi would then be tried by the student supreme court. Instead of following the Student Government Association's stated policies, the SGA student senate grated SGA president Shane Smith one-time powers to sanction Sethi as he deemed appropriate.
As a result, Smith imposed the following sanctions on Sethi, and released a statement to that effect this past Friday. The sanctions include:
- A 50-day suspension from the Student Government Association starting August 1st. (Sethi currently receives a stipend of approximately $700 per month for her work with the SGA, and her suspension will be unpaid.)
- A requirement to attend a three-day diversity workshop in mid-August.
- A requirement to attend three University of Houston "cultural events” each month from September through March, excluding December.
- An order to write a “letter of reflection” about how her harmful actions have impacted the Student Government Association and the University of Houston student body
- An order to conduct a public presentation on September 28th detailing “the knowledge she has gained about cultural issues facing our society.”
If Sethi does not complete all of the imposed sanctions, she will be expelled from the Student Government Association.
The University of Houston itself has not taken action thus far against Sethi, but many students have rallied behind her, and it will be interesting to see if the SGA response concludes the matter. SGA president Smith notes that his punishment was harsh because Sethi, despite her apology, did not recognize how offensive her "AllLivesMatter" Facebook post was to others. Smith also noted that Sethi's post negatively reflected upon the University and the Student Government Association, and that despite the University of Houston being a public university, the issue of free speech was not factored into the response or punishment; Smith contended, “The first amendment prevents a person from being jailed by the government for what they say. But [it] does not prevent people from receiving other consequences for what they say.”
Who Decides What When Campus Disciplinary Issues Arise?
There are obviously different opinions as to the Black Lives Matter movement not just on college campuses, but throughout the nation. The distinguishing factor in Rohini Sethi's case is that she was in a leadership position in the Student Government Association. Although some contend that she should be held to a higher standard, should the SGA have circumvented stated disciplinary policies because some students (whether the majority or minority) were offended by a SGA leader's opinion?
In times of discord, deviation from stated disciplinary policies for the sake of bringing closure to a matter is highly questionable; arguably, regardless of the perceived need for expediency, students should have a full and fair opportunity to defend against those who speak against them. Ultimately, what happened to Sethi raises another issue that is an all-too-common occurrence on campuses nationwide:
If a student is offended by what is arguably another student's opinion, should the "offense" taken by the offended student be considered in whether disciplinary charges are brought against the student who expressed the opinion?
If a college or university, on the basis that the offended student's concerns deserve being addressed, deems it necessary to file disciplinary charges against the student who expressed the opinion, should the offended student's interpretation of what was expressed by the accused student be considered in a student disciplinary proceeding?
If so, is "offense" solely "in the (figurative) eyes of the beholder"?
If not, who should determine the reasonableness, and when applicable, the unreasonableness, of the offended student's interpretation?
Students and parents must understand that when a college student expresses an (arguably) controversial opinion, whether verbally or in writing, be it in traditional form, electronically as with a text message or email, or via social media such as through Facebook or Snapchat for example, and often whether on or off campus, it can create not only campus disciplinary issues for the student, but also many questions as to what is appropriate and what is reasonable in campus student discipline.