SACRAMENTO — UC Davis students who were pepper-sprayed by campus police during a sit-down Occupy protest sued the officers and university administrators in federal court Wednesday, claiming excessive force and suppression of free speech.
The Nov. 18 demonstration became a rallying image for the Occupy movement around the country after a video showed UC Davis officers, one identified as Lt. John Pike, dispassionately spraying the stinging chemical into the eyes of seated students at close range.
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Pike, another officer and campus Police Chief Annette Spicuzza have been suspended with pay while the university investigates the incident.
"When the cost of speech is a shot of blinding, burning pepper spray in the face, speech is not free," Michael Risher, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, said Wednesday.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento by 17 students and two graduates who took part in the demonstration, which was organized by Occupy UC Davis. Twelve said they were pepper-sprayed, and eight claimed illegal arrests.
The students sat in the UC Davis quad to protest recent tuition increases and the use of force by UC Berkeley police, who had clubbed some demonstrators while breaking up an encampment on that campus a week earlier.
UC Davis police ordered demonstrators to remove tents they had pitched on the quad, but not everyone complied. Police in riot gear then approached the protesters, who sat with arms linked, and told them to leave.
After using pepper spray, officers arrested 10 students for failing to disperse. Prosecutors decided not to charge them.
Officers said later they had felt surrounded and threatened by the protesters. But the suit said the demonstration was nonviolent, except for "the violence used by ... police officers."
Police, acting at the orders of UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi and other officials, decided to forcefully break up a peaceful assembly "because of the demonstration's message and who was delivering it," the students' lawyers said.
One student, Fatima Sbeih, who volunteers as a paramedic, said she was pepper-sprayed and then helped tend to other demonstrators who were in pain. "The university needs to respect students' rights to make our voices heard, especially when we're protesting university policies that impact our studies," she said.
The suit seeks unspecified damages and an injunction against the use of excessive force.
In a statement, UC Davis spokesman Barry Schiller said, "Attorneys for the university and the plaintiffs have been talking. We hope those conversations continue." He said university officials haven't seen the lawsuit and wouldn't comment on it.