Student threatened with suspension for passing out fliers on campus

OHIO — A student at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College was threatened with suspension and escorted off campus on May 30 for distributing fliers supporting the school janitors’ campaign for higher wages.

The student, Billy Embree, joined Leslie Mendoza Kamstra, a representative from the Service Employees International Union who a professor had invited to speak to her class that morning, in handing out fliers. Two security officers approached the pair and told Mendoza Kamstra, “We have told you about this before, and the next time we catch you doing this you will be going to jail,” Embree said.

Mendoza Kamstra replied that she knew her rights and that campus security officers cannot make arrests under Ohio law. So the guards called the Cincinnati police, Embree said.

Embree began asking the guards what law or school policy he and Mendoza Kamstra had broken, and the officers asked to see his student and state IDs. They told him he had violated the student code of conduct and could face suspension or expulsion, Embree said.

The officers asked Embree if he had any more classes that day, he said. When he replied no, they told him to leave campus. Embree refused, believing he had the right to stay, and asked to wait until the police arrived so he could ask them about the situation, he said.

Embree said a guard then decided to “write him up,” and told him he would be reported to the dean of students for disciplinary action. One of the guards then escorted Embree off school property, he said.

Three police cars arrived, but several professors came to explain that Mendoza Kamstra had been invited. The police told the security guards they saw no reason to arrest her, she said.

Michele Imhoff, the college’s director of public information, identified four sections of the student code that could have been violated: “disruption or obstruction of college activities”; “failure to comply with directions of college officials or law enforcement officers”; “participation in a campus demonstration which disrupts the normal operations of the college”; and “breach of peace.” The penalty for violating the student code of conduct would be determined in a series of hearings.

No disciplinary action has been taken against Embree to date.

The guards said the administration had told them the literature should not be distributed, Mendoza Kamstra recalled. Imhoff confirmed that the guards had been instructed to remove anyone canvassing on campus that did not go “through the proper channels,” she said.

The college has an official process whereby anyone who wants to distribute information or solicit students on campus can register with the student activities office, Imhoff said.

“At no time up until that point did the union organizers request that. They did not go through the process,” Imhoff said. “In fact, since that time they have gone through the process and they have been on campus, and they’re on campus today.”

But Embree claims an “intimidation factor” still overshadows student participation in the janitors’ campaign. At a subsequent rally, a student activities official and security guards waved Embree over and advised him not to be involved, he said.

Embree said other students have felt intimidated as well. While circulating a petition, “I actually had students tell me, ‘Oh, I’m about to graduate. I can’t sign this. I don’t want to start any trouble,'” he said. “That’s part of our freedom of speech — being able to sign something we believe in.”

Until Wednesday, the union’s fliers posted on campus bulletin boards had been repeatedly removed, according to Embree and Mendoza Kamstra. “We had to keep going back day after day hanging up flier after flier on the same board because the fliers kept coming down,” Embree said. “So Leslie [Mendoza Kamstra] talked to someone higher up in the administration who said security would watch our boards, and all of a sudden our fliers are staying up.”

Jeffrey Gamso, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, sent a letter to the college president June 7, warning that “should this current behavior continue and the First Amendment rights of the organizers and students continue to be violated, I will have no choice but to recommend the matter for immediate litigation.”

Embree, who said he feels continued harassment from the guards, plans to file a formal complaint with the school.