Fighting For Important Causes In State And Federal Courts
Although an extensive debate between Pennsylvania State University Judicial Affairs and Olivia Guevara ended last week, the motives behind her prosecution are still being questioned.
Over the past five months, Guevara, a graduate student in the department of labor, has repeatedly challenged Penn State’s decision to prosecute her for vandalism and accused the university of singling her out to squelch her anti-sweatshop activism.
The battle has grown to involve 48 professors, labor departments from other universities, labor unions, concerned students from across the country and a local attorney who said Guevara’s First Amendment rights were at risk.
The charges stem from an incident on Sept. 27, when Guevara and several other activists chalked anti-sweatshop messages on several university buildings, including Old Main. Criminal charges against Guevara were dismissed because of a lack of evidence. However, Judicial Affairs asked for damage fees and issued a seven-year citation on her academic record.
Penn State officials have maintained that Guevara’s Judicial Affairs hearing was fair and that her prosecution was solely a matter of vandalism.
The university was also steadfast in its determination of Guevara’s damage fees to repair a door of Old Main until last week when it reduced them from $408.96 to $136.32, citing an incorrect initial estimation of the damages.
Contrary to past statements by administrators, Guevara has maintained that she never admitted to specifically scratching the doors of Old Main, which is what she must pay the damage fee for. She also said that scratches were never discussed at her hearing.
Penn State has said it had “more than adequate evidence” to prosecute Guevara.
However, neither the police report nor the criminal citation on the incident indicates any scratches on the Old Main doors.
Employees have refused to comment on the cleanup or the damages to the door, directing all inquiries to Penn State spokesman Bill Mahon.
Mahon refused to comment on the work order, saying that the university had nothing more to say about “this minor case of vandalism.” Guevara said this is an example of the university’s ambiguous treatment of the case.
“I’m glad someone finally did their job and made the correction,” Guevara said. “But given the evidence and how things turned out I still question why the university acted the way they did. They haven’t been clear on many things since the very beginning.” Guevara also said she still thinks she was unfairly prosecuted by the university because her views were hostile to Penn State.
“I can say this confidently because to my knowledge no other student organization has ever been tried for chalking,” Guevara said.
While chalking is a violation of the student code of conduct, administrators have said in the past that chalking isn’t the problem, but the scratches and damages the Old Main door is.
Although Guevara said she is still frustrated with the result, she is also relieved that the case is over.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” she said.
THE CHALKING INCIDENT AND SUBSEQUENT TRIALS Guevara’s rollercoaster ride began on the night of Sept. 27 when “Adopt the DSP” and “Make Penn State Sweatshop Free” were written in chalk on several university buildings. A surveillance video from Old Main that night shows six or seven activists writing on the buildings.
United Students Against Sweatshops and The Student Labor Action Project have been asking Penn State to sign the Designated Suppliers Program, a plan that ensures licensed apparel for universities is not made in sweatshops. While Guevara is a member of both groups, neither group was identified by Judicial Affairs as the organizer behind the chalking incident.
Penn State University Police used The Daily Collegian archives and Facebook to identify Guevara as one of the people in the surveillance video.
Guevara received notice to appear before Centre County District Judge Jonathan Grine to be charged with criminal mischief involving tampering with private property. She was also summoned by Judicial Affairs for a disciplinary hearing.
Judicial Affairs only prosecutes students for violating the student code of conduct, while the court can try students for criminal activity.
During her first meeting with Judicial Affairs, Guevara was given the option to name the other students of the group who were shown in the videotape to lessen her sanctions, but she refused. She also refused to identify the student groups involved in the chalking.
Guevara appealed the ruling but her sanctions were upheld.
After being informed of Guevara’s case by members of USAS, concerned individuals from labor unions and university labor departments wrote letters to Penn State President Graham Spanier asking him to lessen or drop Guevara’s charges and encouraging compliance with the DSP.
Guevara said multiple letters were sent to Spanier from organizations such as the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and USAS International.
She also said that students at other universities, such as Cornell and Georgetown, wrote to Spanier on her behalf.
Two weeks ago, 48 Penn State professors got involved in the battle when they delivered a letter to Spanier asking him to drop the sanctions against Guevara and to adopt the DSP.
In a response letter, Spanier said the charges would remain.
Before appearing in criminal court, Guevara contacted attorney Andrew Shubin to discuss her charges. Shubin told Guevara he was concerned that her first amendment rights were being violated and that he would handle her case for free.
In trial, Shubin argued that the court was selectively prosecuting Guevara because of the content of her messages. He said other groups that had advertised by chalking university property had never been charged. He showed pictures of chalked messages on campus from mtvU and Lionmenus.com.
Shubin also argued that although the surveillance video shows Guevara chalking a column of Old Main, she could not be clearly identified chalking other parts of the building.
After viewing the videotapes Grine dropped Guevara’s charges because of a lack of evidence.
Despite the dismissal of her criminal charges and the requests of concerned professors, university administrators repeatedly said all of Guevara’s sanctions would remain.
Last week, almost three months after first charging Guevara for damages, the university adjusted the fee.
THE DAMAGE CONTROVERSY On Friday, the university admitted that its calculation of damages was wrong.
At the beginning of the criminal hearing on Feb. 5, Penn State police officer Roxanne Snider informed the judge that she was reducing the restitution costs from $408.96 to $381.92 because she did not have sufficient evidence to identify Guevara chalking the doors.
Despite Snider’s reduction of the fees in criminal court, Judicial Affairs kept Guevara’s fee the same.
When Guevara asked Director of Judicial Affairs Joe Puzycki to adjust the fees to $381.82 on Feb. 23, she was told that OPP confirmed the original repair costs.
According to the police report received by Judicial Affairs on Nov. 28, Office of the Physical Plant Supervisor Connie Brumgard determined that there was a $408.96 “cleanup cost” for the chalked messages.
Guevara’s citation for criminal mischief also mentions the $408.96 restitution fee. However, the criminal citation reads “12 hours labor for cleanup” under the restitution fee. Neither report cites damage to the doors or asks for a restoration cost for the scratches.
Brumgard would not comment on the damage and directed all inquiries to other OPP supervisors who said they did not know the details of the chalking incident.
Guevara said she asked both OPP and Puzycki for a copy of the work order, which included the fee to clean the doors, but never received it. When asked for a copy of the OPP fee confirmation letter by the Collegian on Feb. 28, Puzycki did not include it in his e-mail response.
Guevara received e-mail notification from Puzycki the next day saying that her restitution fees had been reduced to $108.32 for labor and $28.00 for equipment.
Judicial Affairs ignored another request by The Collegian for a copy of the newly reviewed work order.
AN ADMISSION OF GUILT Guevara’s request for a reconsideration of the damage fee has also raised questions about her alleged admission of damaging the door and the validity of the Judicial Affairs accusations.
Judicial Affairs says that Guevara admitted to damaging the doors in her disciplinary hearing on Dec. 14.
Guevara said that although she admitted to chalking in general, a specific door was never discussed and that the first time she heard of scratches was when a reporter inquired about them in mid-January.
In an e-mail message sent to Puzycki on Feb. 23, Guevara wrote “The description of the charges and our discussion of the sanctions indicated that the monetary restitution associated with the charges was only related to the cleanup of the chalk from the general surfaces mentioned in the police report.” In Puzycki’s response sent on the same day, he said his “recollection is very clear” that Guevara accepted responsibility.
“The charge that you accepted responsibility for was the University Code 14.08: Damage/Cleanup. These charges were derived from the police report and from the original discussion we had in your Discipline Conference where you admitted to me that you were involved in defacing and responsible for damage to the Old Main doors (along with others that you would not name),” Puzycki wrote.
The e-mail message also explained that Judicial Affairs narrowed the charge to door damage because of video footage that placed Guevara at the Old Main location the night in question, in addition to her disciplinary conference testimony.
“I stand by my word that the Judicial Affairs officer is lying because I never admitted to damaging any door,” Guevara said in a subsequent phone interview with The Collegian.
THE SWEATSHOP BATTLE CONTINUES Although Guevara still disagrees with the rulings, she said she paid the fees to avoid disrupting her academic endeavors. The money she is using to pay for the fees is a collection of donations from 48 professors and other student and community leaders.
Guevara said she thinks the case made the anti-sweatshop movement even stronger.
The groups are continuing to put pressure on Penn State to adopt the DSP.
On Friday banners saying “Adopt the DSP” were hanging from Willard and Sackett Buildings, while members of USAS handed out fliers in front of the building.
USAS member Doug Baldwin said an anonymous student sent him an e-mail message informing him that there would be an anti-sweatshop demonstration in front of the buildings around noon and asked the group to hand out fliers.
Penn State has refused to sign the DSP, saying that it raises anti-trust issues and has structural problems. University officials have also said that although it will not adopt the plan, it is committed to combating sweatshop labor.