Milo Fitzgerald, Contributing Writer
In the wake of clashes with the administration this semester, the College Democrats have dissolved as a student organization, in protest of what one club member deemed as “censoring a club’s right to discuss a political topic.” This follows the series of Bangor Daily News (BDN) articles about the handling of sexual assault cases by UMF staff and administration.
Prior to the BDN articles published earlier this year, an individual messaged former Secretary Hope Lash, senior, on Facebook in what she said was an “extremely disrespectful” and “inappropriate” manner. Lash, at the time on a May 2018 travel course, had never spoken to the individual before and declined his advances, then blocked him on her personal Facebook account.
Sometime following the first BDN article, the individual reported to Student Senate that he was blocked from accessing the public College Democrats Facebook page. This accusation was not verified by the Senate before action was taken. In fact, it became clear that the individual was not blocked from the Facebook page, because he had sent messages to the page asking for meeting times. Because the College Democrats generally did not get much activity on the Facebook page, they were not checking the page very often.
However, the individual reported the accusation to a member of the Senate, who directed the case to Student Life. The College Democrats were told by Marie Prevost, Graduate Area Coordinator for Student Life and their own club advisor, that the club would become defunct if they did not allow the individual to come to club meetings. After Lash discovered the messages sent to the Facebook page, Prevost declined to take any action and told her to take her complaint to Brian Ufford, Director of Student Life.
“There were many in the club uncomfortable around the person,” former President of the College Democrats, Jeffrey Willey, senior, said in an email interview.
Dominic Stevens, former Treasurer, admitted that the individual had an “unsettling demeanor.”
However, Willey added, “I told them that, due to University policy, we could not prevent the person from attending.” Because students are required to pay an activity fee, unless there is a legal restraining order, a student cannot be prevented from joining any club.
The College Democrats planned their next meeting, which took place directly before the first Campus Violence Prevention Coalition panel on Wednesday, Feb. 6, wanting to discuss a range of topics, from budget hearings and the State of the Union Address to the Women’s March and “the importance of solidarity as well as unity when it comes to sexual assault,” Lash said in her personal statement to Brian Ufford. “Given the current events which have been unfolding for weeks on this campus, as well as the situation we had seemingly been placed in we felt we had a responsibility to those who attend our meetings to educate, protect, and discuss with members sexual assault and violence.”
By discussing the topic at large, Lash continued, the goal was to “solidify where we as a group stood on the subject, making it clear to all those who attend our meetings that the College Democrats support victims in these cases, and will continue to listen to the voices of men and women who speak out in courage against their assaulters.”
However, Lash and the other members were not allowed to speak about the topic of sexual assault during their meeting. Fifteen minutes before the meeting began, Lash reported, Brian Ufford pulled aside Willey for a private conversation. During this conversation, Ufford informed him that Title IX action would be brought against the club, which would result in its dissolution, if the College Democrats were to keep speaking out against the current sexual assault issues.
“I realized quickly during our meeting Wednesday,” Lash said in her personal statement, “that Student Life cared more for censoring a club’s right to discuss a political topic as all conversation regarding sexual assault was avoided with the exception of a comment I had made when the CVPC forum was brought up, to which I was promptly interrupted by Miss Prevost who essentially told me to be quiet.”
After realizing that she had no other option, Lash announced that she was resigning as the College Democrats’ Secretary. By that Friday, the rest of the E-board had joined her.
“I refuse to be party to the confusion and injustice that the administration has caused as a result of the misuse of power when Title IX is involved,” Lash said. “I’d rather there be no club at all, than put members’ safety and comfort at risk.”
Following the Wednesday meeting, Lash and the other members were contacted by Robert Pederson, President’s Council member and Director of Center for Student Development, on behalf of Interim President Eric Brown, asking for in person meetings or email statements about the dissolution of the College Democrats. “Eric Brown told him to get to the bottom of things,” said Stevens, who met with Pederson in person. Lash reported that she sent her email statement on Feb. 19, and has still not received a response from either Pederson or Brown.
“I want people to understand how admin, particularly Student Life, sees and treats students,” Lash said in her personal statement. “We are tired of the neglect, we are tired of the lack of transparency, and most of all we are tired of being unheard. If UMF is to succeed it must listen to our voices and concerns with kindness, as well as respect.”
Willey also voiced concern for the future. “While I will not be here next semester, I still do care about our University and those that will attend after myself, and I would not want this to ever happen to anyone again,” Willey wrote in an email interview.
Hope Shore, Assistant Director of Student Life and Deputy Title IX Coordinator, declined to comment on the situation, as well as Prevost. Amie Parker, Director of Human Resources, did not respond to an email inquiry, and Brian Ufford did not respond to multiple email inquiries.
Section 402, the UMaine System (UMS) interpretation of Title IX, states that all UMaine universities “will not tolerate sex discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, or retaliation in any form. All conduct of this nature is considered a violation of this policy.” Retaliation is defined as “intimidating, threatening, coercing, or in any way discriminating against an individual because of the individual’s complaint or participation.” Furthermore, UMF’s Student Conduct Code states that retaliation is an “action taken by the University or any individual or group against any person for opposing any practices prohibited by the Code or for filing a complaint, testifying, assisting, or participating in an investigation or proceeding under the Code.” As stated, the College Democrats took no action to prevent the individual from accessing the Facebook page or attending the meetings. There is nothing in either of these official documents that would indicate a violation by the College Democrats.