ACLU attorneys inform students about rights

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union informed GW students about their rights as GW and D.C. residents at a forum Tuesday.

The discussion, sponsored by GW’s chapter of the ACLU, included University Police Officer Gordon Phelps and ACLU attorneys Steve Block and John Wimberly.

Block told about 15 GW students that their rights at the University are not all guaranteed by the United States Constitution.

“Because GW is a private university, its students are not subject to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States,” Block said. “A contractual relationship exists between the student population and the University that supersedes constitutional law.”

Block also said that place is an extremely critical factor in deciding judicial jurisdiction.

“If a violation occurs on University property, then the perpetrator is subject to both University regulations and D.C. code,” he said. “If the violation happens in a public forum, such as a street or sidewalk, then your constitutional rights are guaranteed.”

All three speakers emphasized the importance of adhering to students’ contractual agreements with GW outlined in the “The Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities” and the “Community Living and Learning Center Residential Community Conduct Guidelines and Administrative Policies.” The two documents range from rules on having lit candles in residence halls to maintaining freedom of speech.

Wimberly said the two guides do a “fairly good job” in respecting First Amendment issues such as free speech, censorship and prior restraint regarding student publications.

University Police entrance into individual residence hall rooms was the prevailing topic at the meeting. Students raised concerns about what are considered acceptable conditions for UPD to enter otherwise private rooms.

“UPD can only enter a student’s room when an officer believes a reasonable violation that can be articulated has occurred,” Phelps said.

He said possible marijuana or alcohol use is one of the main causes of police intrusion, but police are only allowed to search the scope of the room. For example, if an officer were looking for a beer bottle, he would not be allowed to search your pockets, Phelps said.

Heather Saslovsky, the student ACLU representative, said many students make false assumptions that their rights are constitutionally protected.

“Most students don’t know that their public rights change when they enter a private university, and attending an event such as this serves as a good way to inform students what exact rights they do have,” Saslovsky said.

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