Two University of Vermont students who were nabbed by police for their participation in a peaceful, pro-marijuana rally on campus last April have settled their legal claims against the school. The students, Thomas Wheeler and Nikolai Sears, announced last week that they will each receive a cash settlement of $7500 from UVM after accusing the university of violating their free-speech rights.
The students, who were both sophomores at the time, were arrested April 20 and charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly rallying their fellow students to participate in a demonstration that had not been officially sanctioned by the university. Although the state later dropped the charges, UVM officials indicated that both students would still face disciplinary action for their participation in the "420 rally," an annual student event and smoke-in in support of marijuana legalization.
In recent years, UVM has tried to crack down on the 420 rallies, which this year drew an estimated 500 to 600 students, in an effort to combat the university's national reputation as a "party school." Former interim UVM President Ed Colodny said recently that for years, that negative image harmed student and faculty recruitment and made it more difficult for the university to secure funding from the state legislature.
But Wheeler and Sears both say that the university overstepped its legal authority when it tried to intimidate students with a sizeable police presence at this year's rally. They challenged the disciplinary action with legal assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont. According to the ACLU, the settlement stipulates that neither student will be disciplined. Wheeler, who was facing a one-year suspension on an unrelated alcohol violation, says that his suspension has been reduced to one semester. Sears, who still lives in Burlington, is not currently attending UVM.
"We're pleased that the students' rights to assemble peacefully have been validated," said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU, in a written statement. "If there is any place where such rights should be protected and nurtured, it's at a respected educational institution such as UVM."
Sears claims that he and Wheeler offered to receive a smaller cash settlement in exchange for a public apology sent out to the entire campus, but UVM officials refused the offer, he says.
"We're confident that we acted appropriately," says UVM spokesman Enrique Corredera. "Our goal was to prevent another event like the one we had in previous years and, most importantly, to ensure the safety of our students and to preserve law and order."