Seven college students each could face up to a year in jail for what they say was nothing more than a peaceful protest on Emory University’s quad against the university’s treatment of employees.
Emory graduate students Roger Sikes, Laura Emiko Soltis, Andrea Nicholls, and Joseph Diaz, were arrested April 25, 2011, along with two Georgia State University students and one from Georgia Tech.
“We were on our own quad at our own campus,” Sikes said at a recent press conference. “We were here simply to create a dialogue about some of the labor conditions here and because Emory disagreed with our political stance and message, they decided to clamp down and throw us in jail.”
Approximately 30 students had set up and occupied tents. Emory police gave the students five minutes to vacate the premises, and then the seven students remaining were arrested and charged with criminal trespassing.
Sikes said he and his fellow students were protesting against a “two-tiered” labor system on Emory’s campus, under which they say contracted employees were treated less fairly than those directly employed by the university.
According to Sikes, employees for Sodexo, the university’s food service provider, aren’t offered MARTA passes by the university as direct employees are, and faced “anti-union intimidation” by Sodexo.
“Sodexo came in and held captive-audience meetings and forced the workers to sit through anti-union meetings where workers felt they would be fired or disciplined if they chose to exercise their right to form a union,” Sikes said.
The seven students, who were scheduled for arraignment April 12, filed pleas of not guilty. The case originally fell to the DeKalb County Solicitor’s Office but officials there referred the case to the attorney general. It was later assigned to the Gwinnett County Solicitor’s Office.
“From time to time prosecutors refer matters to the attorney general out of an abundance of caution, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest or the appearance of partiality. We did that in this case,” said Emily Gest, spokeswoman for the DeKalb County solicitor general’s office.
Emory University released a statement regarding the case: “Emory’s counsel has spoken with the counsel for the individuals in the past with an offer of cooperation and has reached out again this week. To move the process forward, we respectfully suggest that the arrested individuals put their attorney in touch with Emory’s, as Emory’s offer still stands.”
Sikes said Emory officials did send the seven students an offer over the summer but they decided not to agree to it because they felt it would take away some of their civil rights, such as the right to peacefully assemble.
“What it basically states is that Emory may be willing to speak with the solicitor if the students sign away some of our legal rights, including our legal right to sue,” Sikes said. “It also asked us to admit that we were the ones who caused all of the issues on Emory’s campus.”
Emory officials would not comment further on the university’s offer of cooperation to the students.
Soltis, who is a student at Emory’s Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts studying human rights, said the fact the university is going forward with prosecution is “atrocious.”
“We’re urging [Emory University] President James Wagner to communicate to the prosecutor to drop the charges and focus on the other issues which we were raising awareness about on April 25, 2011, to begin with,” Soltis said.
Sikes said he’s worried about spending time in jail but is willing to go if the case comes to that point.
“If I need to go to jail to get Emory to look at the working conditions on their campus I would do that,” Sikes said.