It started with Congress, which in 1998 voted to deny federal financial aid to students with minor drug convictions like marijuana possession. Now the use of financial aid as an incentive to curb “undesirable” student behavior has moved to the state level. But in the latest legislative crackdowns, it’s not pot-tokers but political activists who could be punished.
The situation stems from campus riots, a problem state legislatures have been under increasing pressure to address in recent years. Unlike the 1960s anti-Vietnam War unrest at places like Berkeley and Columbia, today’s riots are more closely aligned with cheap beer and well-heeled athletic programs.
In Ohio, where an Ohio State University football victory over Michigan last year set off a celebratory riot resulting in nine torched cars and $135,000 in police overtime costs, Governor Bob Taft OK’d a law in June that takes away financial aid for up to two years from students convicted of “rioting” or “failing to disperse.”
Ohio activists say that at a time when tuition and fee increases are soaring because of tighter state budgets–9 percent at Ohio State this year–the new law could stifle student protests. The concern is understandable; students at Ohio State marched with striking custodial and food-service workers in spring 2000, while those from a number of public and private universities joined antiglobalization protests in the streets of Cincinnati that same winter. Democratic State Senator Robert Hagan of Youngstown, one of the few dissenting voices in the conservative Ohio Statehouse, says he knows union activists in his industrial, blue-collar district whose rap sheets include little more than “failing to disperse.” “I’m not for allowing the use of this clause to penalize people who may be peacefully protesting and may be judged arbitrarily by a police officer,” Hagan says.
Ohio Young Democrats president Jonathan Varner says legislators are taking advantage of the political impotence of young people. “You wouldn’t see somebody saying they can’t get a [National Fair Housing Alliance] mortgage if they get busted for trespassing or something like that,” he says. The Young Democrats are planning an educational campaign, hoping to incite liberals to vote in 2004 against incumbent Republicans, who control both branches of the Statehouse and consequently the budget proceedings that created the anti-rioting bill. Ray Vasvari, legal director for the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union, says his group hasn’t taken any action on the law as yet but is “looking at it carefully.”
Ohio State spokeswoman Elizabeth Conlisk, who didn’t return a telephone call or e-mail, told The Lantern, the student newspaper, “Attending Ohio State or any other state institution is a privilege, and those who choose to engage in senseless destruction of property ought to be punished. If this is what it takes to help prevent riots, so be it.”
The passage of the Ohio bill follows approval of a law last year in Colorado that prevents those convicted of riot-related crimes from attending a state school for a year. An earlier version that would have disqualified students from receiving financial aid was scrapped after representatives from Colorado State’s student government and the University of Colorado’s student union argued that it discriminated against low-income students. Colorado State Representative Don Lee, who sponsored the bill, says it has been a success–nobody has rioted and nobody has been suspended. He says jury trials and the due process of the court system should be enough to prevent any arbitrary enforcement.
The newest laws could be models for more to come. Minnesota this year shot down an anti-rioting bill similar to Ohio’s because of concerns over who would be responsible for carrying out background checks. But after a drunken riot near the Minnesota State campus resulted in forty-five arrests, sixteen injuries and an estimated $100,000-$200,000 in property damage, Republican Representative Carla Nelson promised to reintroduce legislation next year that would disqualify convicted students from receiving state financial aid and require them to pay out-of-state tuition.
Lee, meanwhile, is considering bringing something else to the table next year. Noting that the University of Colorado was ranked number-one party school in the country this year by Princeton Review, he says, “One of the things we keep saying is that we want to promote a drug-free society. One of the things I’ve been batting around is when a student applies for financial aid from the state, they have to pass a drug test.”