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UConn students arrested for yelling racial slur sue university on First Amendment grounds

Russell Blair, The Hartford Courant on

Published in News & Features

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Two UConn students arrested last year for repeatedly shouting a racial slur outside an on-campus apartment building are suing the university, its president and other administrators, alleging their First Amendment rights are being violated.

In their lawsuit, filed in federal court in Connecticut on Tuesday, Ryan Mucaj and Jarred Karal say the school is seeking to remove them from university housing as punishment for violating the student code of conduct, specifically a section on "disruptive behavior."

"The Disruptive Behavior policy, as implemented and as written, is a de facto prior restraint, affording university officials essentially freewheeling and standardless discretion over speech as to content and viewpoint, as officials deem what speech falls within the policy and is impermissible," the lawsuit reads. "The Disruptive Behavior policy is unconstitutionally overbroad, unlawfully restricting speech."

A UConn spokeswoman said the university does not comment on pending litigation.

Mucaj and Karal were arrested in October when UConn police used surveillance video and ID scanner footage from a bar just off campus to track them down after a video of the pair shouting a slur for African Americans was shared on social media. The students were charged with ridicule on account of creed, religion, color, denomination, nationality or race.

The lawsuit focuses not on their arrest, but rather the university's internal discipline process. Karal has been granted a special form of probation that could result in the criminal charge against him being dismissed. Mucaj's criminal case is still pending in Superior Court in Rockville.

 

According to the lawsuit, university officials held a series of hearings with Mucaj and Karal throughout the fall. After interviewing the students, a conduct officer concluded the two had violated the code of conduct and recommended the university terminate the students' housing agreement with the school.

The student code defines disruptive behavior as "participating in or inciting others to participate in the disruption or obstruction of any University activity, including, but not limited to: teaching, research, events, administration, student conduct proceedings, the living/learning environment, or other University activities, on or off-campus; or of other non-University activities when the conduct occurs on University premises; or of the living environment, on or off-campus."

The lawsuit argues Mucaj and Karal are being punished for their First Amendment-protected speech, and nothing more. It cites a 1990 case where UConn agreed, in a court order, not to enforce "any ... policy that interferes with the exercise of First Amendment rights" of students "when the exercise of such rights is unaccompanied by violence or the imminent threat of violence." That order stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a junior at the university who was banned from residence and dining halls after she hung a poster on her dorm room door that said "homos" would be "shot on sight."

"At no point in any of the proceedings was either student accused of acting with violence or the imminent threat of violence, or any misconduct even remotely approaching such," Mucaj and Karal's lawsuit reads. "The school has only ever accused the students of acting orally and verbally."

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