Law prof. threatens suit if GW won’t work to ban smoking outside buildings

A litigious law professor said he will threaten legal action against the University unless it decides to take at least some action on a student’s proposal to ban smoking within 25 feet of GW-owned buildings.

Carlye Austin, a GW graduate student and member of the local group Smokefree DC, is leading an effort to rid GW buildings of the “gauntlet of smoke” that lingers by each entrance. Her goal is to institute a 25-foot, non-smoking zone outside of all doorways of University-owned buildings. Austin presented her proposal to amend GW’s smoking policy to GW’s Office of Risk Management earlier this semester, and it will be considered April 1.

GW law professor John Banzhaf, a noted crusader against smoking, said he supports the proposal and thinks excuses the University has given to him about implementing such changes – particularly that it does not have authority over the city sidewalks – are invalid.

“That’s crap for anyone who knows the University, which has never been reluctant to enforce authority beyond their legal capability before,” he said.

Matt Lindsay, GW’s assistant director of Media Relations, said it is unlikely that GW will pass the proposal because of the difficulties there would be in implementing such a rule on campus.

“It may be a worthwhile proposal, but the way the campus is set up, logistically, it’s not feasible,” Lindsay said. “GW ownership of the buildings ends at the face of the buildings. We would be telling students and staff not to do something that the public could do. It’s unenforceable.”

GW’s Office of Risk Management did not return calls from The Hatchet this week.

Lindsay said he didn’t want to speculate on how GW would handle a potential Banzhaf lawsuit if he decided to pursue it, but said that “it’s part of the academic freedom at the University to allow students, professors and critics to voice their opinions.”

Banzhaf suggested that GW agree to create soft-worded signs, such as “Please No Smoking Within 25 Feet of Doorways,” that would satisfy both the anti-smoking campaign and the University without having to change policy. He added that he will threaten legal action in the name of the Americans with Disabilities Act should Austin’s proposal fail the review in April and the University decides to take no action.

GW’s smoking policy already bans lighting up in academic, athletic and administrative facilities, and last year was extended to include residence halls.

Earlier this semester, the D.C. fire department responded to a smoldering in the tile work outside of Funger Hall after a lit cigarette was dropped in between the cracks of the tiles.

Austin said, “The aim is to keep smokers from congregating in front of entrances and doorways on campus so that people don’t have to walk through a cloud of toxic smoke and so we can reduce the amount of smoke that gets sucked into buildings whenever doors are opened or closed.”

Austin said she has assembled a coalition of student groups backing the goal. She added that more than 425 students, faculty and staff have signed an online petition supporting the policy, and members of the Student Association have also offered their help for April’s review.

Austin said her proposal follows recent nationwide trends in anti-smoking laws. California’s Air Resources Board recently designated tobacco second-hand smoke as a “toxic air pollutant,” and like Austin’s plan, Washington state’s smoking ban passed in November is the first to include a provision that bans smoking within a 25-foot radius of all doorways, windows and ventilation ducts at workplaces. Also, Georgetown University, Penn State University, Old Dominion University, the University of Cincinnati and California’s state school system have already passed similar rules, Austin said.

Most student smokers interviewed by The Hatchet said they would not be pleased with the University banning smoking outside of its buildings.

“(I’d be) a little angry that the University would do that after not allowing it in dorms,” GW sophomore Anna Maloney said.

Others thought that even if an outdoor smoking ban were enacted, it would not actually change the ways of smokers walking around campus.

“It wouldn’t hold up,” sophomore Mike Gordon said. “Legally it would mean students would have to smoke in the streets or leave campus, and who’s going to enforce it?”

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