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Judge OKs $1 M pepper-spray settlement

By From page A1 | January 10, 2013

SACRAMENTO — A federal judge on Wednesday signed off on a $1 million settlement between UC Davis and Occupy protesters pepper-sprayed or arrested on Nov. 18, 2011.

U.S. District Court Judge John A. Mendez praised both sides for coming to an agreement, the terms of which were first announced in September, calling the settlement “a more than reasonable and quick solution to what could have been a volatile situation.”

The pepper-spraying of seated, unarmed Occupy UC Davis protesters by police sent in to remove a day-old encampment from the Quad drew worldwide attention. Ten protesters were arrested, though the Yolo County Attorney’s Office opted not to file charges citing lack of evidence.

The university will pay $30,000 each to 21 protesters, almost all of whom were students. Another 38 people later came forward to make claims, 15 of which were approved. They will received $6,666 apiece.

UC will also pay $250,000 to cover the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and costs and assist with applying for a records adjustment students who were negatively affected by anxiety attacks or other consequences of the incident.

Mendez said that he believed the university has done “the best job possible under the situation” since the pepper-spraying.

That the agreement calls for the ACLU of Northern California to play a role in UCD’s ongoing work to promote and protect free speech on campus is “only a plus” and showed the campus was taking positive steps — “as opposed to burying its head in the sand and saying we don’t need to make change,” the judge said.

ACLU staff attorney Michael Risher, one of the attorneys who represented the protesters, said that the settlement was “good for everyone involved.” UC has agreed to pay $20,000 to cover the ACLU’s work as part of its effort to improve policies and procedures for handling protests.

“With a big bureaucracy, things never move as fast as we wish,” Risher said. “I think at this point the memory is still so fresh in everyone’s mind that we’re not going to see a repeat of what happened. The danger is that as memories fade, we will, but I’m confident that we’ll get the policies in place to ensure that doesn’t happen and that free speech is truly welcomed on the UC Davis campus.”

UC did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement, which has been approved by the Board of Regents. UC contended that the administrators involved “acted reasonably and in good faith to address legitimate health and safety risks associated with the presence of an unpermitted encampment” — “and not out of any intent to suppress debate and protest.”

By settling, UC avoided a trial that would have been more costly, no matter the outcome. The $1 million being paid out will come from the university’s general liability risk program, a self-insurance fund.

“This settlement marks an important turning point for the university and will help us move forward,” UCD spokesperson Claudia Morain said. “We are committed to making this a better, more tolerant university – one where nothing like this happens again.”

One plaintiff opted out of the case. Attorneys for both sides said they didn’t believe the woman, a recent UCD School of Law graduate, planned to bring a separate suit, but rather that she might be avoiding a potential conflict of interest with the district court.

As part of the settlement, the representative plaintiffs will each receive written apologies from Chancellor Linda Katehi. In an interview with The Enterprise published on the one-year anniversary of the pepper-spraying, Katehi said that she had been giving some thought to what she would write.

“I need to send an important message to our students: An event like that should not being a learning event for some, it should be a learning event for all. I don’t know how I’m going to say that, but that’s how I’m thinking about it,” she said.

In all, the settlement and hiring of outside consultants and investigators have cost UC and UCD upwards of $2 million, not including legal fees for cases involving first the police union and later newspapers over the release of officer names in the reports.

UC has promised it will reform, systemwide, the policing of protests involving civil disobedience. The Davis campus has posted a long list of reforms and possible reforms and their status at http://demonstrationreviews.ucdavis.edu.

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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