$1 Million Settlement Approved in UC Davis Pepper Spray Lawsuit

by Dan Bacher A federal judge on January 9 approved and finalized the $1 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by UC Davis students and...

by Dan Bacher

A federal judge on January 9 approved and finalized the $1 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by UC Davis students and recent alumni who were pepper sprayed during a protest at the University in November 2011.

The federal class-action lawsuit resulted from the shocking and widely publicized incident in which the campus police repeatedly doused seated, non-violent student demonstrators with military grade pepper spray at close range during demonstrations on November 18, 2011.

Photos and videos of UC Davis Police Lieutenant John Pike pepper spraying the students became viral, drawing international attention to the repression of the Occupy movement in the U.S. and to the outrageous tactics used to repress Occupy UC Davis in particular.

"Police should never have been called out to disperse the lawful protest against steep tuition increases, police brutality against UC Berkeley protesters, and privatization of the university," said Mark E. Merin, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.

"The University never should have used police against peaceful protesters. Perhaps the economic costs of violating students' First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly will discourage similar abuse in the future," Merin noted.

"If the First Amendment means anything, it's that students should be able to exercise their free speech-rights on their college campus without being afraid of police violence," Michael Risher, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. "What happened on November 18 was among the worst examples of police violence against student demonstrators that we've seen in a generation. The early resolution to this lawsuit means that the students can begin the process of moving on and we can work with the University to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again at the University of California."

The lawsuit by 21 UC Davis students and alumni charged that the police violated state and federal constitutional protections, including the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, when they arrested and used excessive force against these non-violent demonstrators. The UC Regents approved the settlement in a September 13 meeting and the settlement documents were filed with the court on September 26, 2012.

The task force that the University created to investigate and analyze the response to the protestors concluded in an extensive report that “The pepper spraying incident that took place on November 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented,” and found culpability at all levels of the University administration and police force.

The terms of the settlement approved by U.S. District Court Judge John Mendez included the following:

• The University will pay $1 million as part of the settlement. This includes a total of $730,000 to the named plaintiffs and others who were arrested or pepper-sprayed on November 18. It will also include up to $250,000 in costs and attorney fees.

• UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi will issue a formal written apology to each of the students and recent alumni who was pepper sprayed or arrested.

• The University will work with the ACLU as it develops new policies on student demonstrations, crowd management, and use of force to prevent anything like the November 18 pepper spray incident from ever happening again. $20,000 of the settlement will go to the ACLU for its future work with the University on these policies to protect free speech and free expression on campus.

• The case was expanded to a class action lawsuit to make sure that anyone who was pepper-sprayed or arrested that day can be part of the settlement, even if they are not a named plaintiff. $100,000 of the total award will be set aside to compensate other individuals who were pepper-sprayed or wrongfully arrested on November 18, 2011.

• The University will also assist students whose academic performance was adversely affected by the incident in applying for academic records adjustment.

Additional information is online here. The pepper spraying incident took place only seven months after the release of internal UC Davis emails revealing surveillance and infiltration tactics employed by campus officials during campus tuition increase protests.

A Public Records Act request by a UC Davis Student resulted in the release of 280 pages of documents that disclosed a surveillance and infiltration program by university officials to monitor, and shape the protests, and also the narrative reported by the news media. The request was made by student Bryan Sparks for documents dating from July 1, 2010 through December 6, 2010.

"The documents reveal high-ranking administrators, and staff members, and leaders of the campus police department formed a network called the ‘Activism Response Team' to keep close tabs on student activists, including monitoring student Facebook activity, infiltrating protests and attempting to obtain information about ‘anticipated student actions,' and individuals involved in the protests," according to a joint statement by the ACLU in Sacramento and Yolo counties on April 11, 2011.

The documents are available at here.

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