MAASTRICHT. The dean of the Maastricht Faculty of Law, who suspended five law students last spring because of racist and anti-Semitic remarks in a WhatsApp group, found himself ruled against by the Appeals Tribunal for Higher Education. He should have first given a warning. With this, the Executive Board that supported him were also given a rap over the knuckles.
The five first-year students from the European Law School heard their punishment at the end of March: they were refused access to any of the university buildings and premises, and were not allowed to make use of any of the facilities for a period of five months. However, dean Jan Smits did not warn them beforehand, did not feel there was a need considering the seriousness of the matter, and that has cost him. One student called upon the Appeals Tribunal for Higher Education, (College van Beroep voor het Hoger Onderwijs, CBHO) and found the judges on his side.
When a student is denied access, without warning, the CBHO states that there must be a “sufficiently clear basis” for the measure that is imposed. But that basis cannot be found in Maastricht University's house rules, the judges argued in their verdict of 22 July.
It appears that there is in particular a lack of clarity as to how the house rules should be read. Should a warning only be given when the registration is suspended temporarily and not in the case of denied access? That is how dean Smits and the Executive Board interpret the rule. This is the reason why they chose denied access. Or should they also have given a warning in this case? The judges believe that they should have. The student wins the case, although the judges stated that his behaviour in the WhatsApp group was “completely unacceptable”.
It was exactly because of the latter why the dean felt a warning was unnecessary. “The offence was too serious,” says Smits. “I felt that they should immediately be sent away for a period of time.” Smits regrets the judges' verdict but realises that the house rules should be adapted to prevent any lack of clarity.
The WhatsApp group, set up by a number of students from the study programme to discuss and inform each other about books and grades, had about 85 members at its peak.
The punishment had tremendous consequences, considering the small number of credits that could eventually be obtained that year. Whether a negative binding study advice was issued and whether that was only reversed for the one student who appealed, Smits does not want to say. The students can, however, embark on their studies again on 1 September. The questions whether this relates to the first or the second year, and whether one or more of the suspended students have left the programme, remain unanswered too.
The UM cannot appeal against the CBHO's verdict.