Activists must pick their poison

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Members of the Make UT Sweatshop-Free Coalition are preparing to go to court next week for criminal charges filed against them by UT.

A group of 18 UT students was arrested last spring during a sit-in meant to force UT to join the Worker Rights Consortium, an organization that monitors working conditions of factory employees internationally. Although UT announced plans to join the consortium in July, the 18 students will appear in court Friday facing charges for criminal trespass, a class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and 180 days in jail.

They must, at that time, either take one of two plea options offered to them earlier this summer or continue to fight the charges against them.

According to Lucian Villasenor, Mexican-American studies senior and arrested student, the plea options offered are as follows:

The first plea would immediately dismiss the charge and force the students to sign an admission of guilt to a class B misdemeanor criminal trespass charge.

The case would remain dismissed as long as the students completed 20 hours of community service and did not get arrested for anything above a class C misdemeanor traffic ticket over a subsequent six-month period. If successful in meeting those conditions, the students could then apply for expungement of the charge, and if unsuccessful, the county could re-file the case and use the admission of guilt in court.

The second plea would defer the charge to a class C misdemeanor of failure to obey a lawful order. Within a three-month period, the students would have to pay a $1 fine and relevant court costs, complete 15 hours of community service and remain arrest-free. If successful in meeting those conditions, the students could apply for expungement of the charge following a two-year waiting period subsequent to the arrest-free three months.

The coalition wanted UT to join the Worker Rights Consortium because they felt the organization overseeing production of UT apparel in foreign countries, Fair Labor Association, wasn’t adequately monitoring working conditions. UT is currently part of both organizations.

In a statement released last month, UT spokeswoman Tara Doolittle said the University administration is not taking further action in this case because they feel it is simply out of their hands.

Doolittle said the students were arrested for trespassing, not for expressing their opinions.

“The legal process for the trespassing charges is out of the University’s hands and lies with the [Travis] County Attorney’s Office,” she said.

Corby Holcomb, assistant trial director for the Travis County Attorney’s Office, said while his office does have the final say in the matter with cases involving criminal trespassing, input from the victim or entity in the case is normally taken into consideration when making charging and sentencing decisions.

“Normally, on a criminal trespass case, say, the property owner where the person was trespassing, they would definitely have input,” he said.

Holcomb declined specific comment on the University’s ability to influence this case, as it is still ongoing.

Bianca Hinz-Foley, a Plan II Honors sophomore arrested in the sit-in last spring, said she and other students arrested hope the UT administration will make an effort to have the charges dropped now that they have realized the importance of joining the Workers Rights Consortium.

“We really do believe that UT will do the right thing and get the charges dropped,” she said.

Naomi Paik, assistant American studies professor, said she supports the actions of the arrested students and opposes their criminalization in this case.

“The representatives of United Students Against Sweatshops acted as thoughtful citizens of their community, which we should always encourage, exercised their rights to free speech, and, importantly, exhausted regular avenues of raising their concerns well before they organized a peaceful sit-in,” she said. “Instead of treating peaceful students as criminals, we have a responsibility to take seriously their ethical concerns.”

Villasenor said he hopes the UT community will come together to support the charged students as their trials approach, but he has not seen much support for them recently.

“Right now, it just does not seem like there is much energy behind it,” he said.

Villasenor said some members of the Make UT Sweatshop Free Coalition are in the planning stages of initiatives to raise community support before the trial.