SGA funds first legal observer training

Nicole Ziege

Funding for the first Legal Observer Training at WKU was approved at the last Student Government Association meeting, with training set to take place on Oct. 19.

According to the Civil Liberties Defense Center, legal observers are “individuals who purposely position themselves close enough to demonstrations to be able to accurately watch and report the activities of participants and the law enforcement who interact with them.”

SGA will allocate $200 for the event to facilitate the event through promotional fliers, providing food for students in attendance and purchasing a gift for the trainers, according to SGA Bill 3-17-F.

The training will enable students to add skills and experience to their resumes and “gain valuable knowledge” about the laws of the United States and their implementation, according to SGA Bill 3-17-F. Any student who becomes a legal observer will be able to provide services within Kentucky and the United States at any demonstration and to serve as impartial observers in the event of any litigation that occurs from the demonstrations, according to the bill.

The training is in partnership with the Nashville chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild as part of its Legal Observer program. The program is designed to “enable people to express their political views as fully as possible without unconstitutional disruption or interference by the police,” according to the National Lawyers’ Guild. The program was established in 1968 in response to protests at Columbia University and city-wide antiwar and civil rights demonstrations.

Emily Houston, the director of Academic and Student Affairs and one of three authors of the bill that proposed the funding, said she started writing the bill following the protests in Charlottesville, saying there was a lot of “anxiety” and “people wanting to help out but not knowing the best way to do that.”

“It’d be great if people were the type to go into the street for a cause but it’s just not always the practical option, especially because we’re all college students,” Houston said.

Houston began looking for ways to help when she found a list of options for people who did not or could not protest, and one of the options suggested becoming a legal observer. She said she looked up the term and decided she wanted to become one.

“After thinking about it a bit more, I was like, ‘Well if this is something that I’m interested in doing, then there’s probably tons of other people on campus who would also be interested,’” Houston said. “I decided to get it going.”

Houston co-authored the bill with Senator Dillon McCormick and Speaker of the Senate Ryan Richardson. She said the longest part of the process for creating the bill was contacting the right people. She emailed the Nashville chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild during the first week of classes, and she said they were “really open about the idea of coming to campus.”

McCormick, speaking at the last SGA meeting, said now was a relevant time to be trained as a legal observer.

“It really can help, especially in this political climate, to have people with these particular skills on hand,” McCormick said.

She then contacted Roger Murphy, Patti Minter and Jeffrey Budziak to ask them if there was a need on campus for legal observer training. Houston said she did not think that a legal observer training has ever been done on campus before.

“Everyone was pretty supportive of doing it,” Houston said. “It was just a matter of finalizing the details and drawing up the legislation, which was not a super long process.”

Houston said she thinks SGA is the “perfect” organization to fund the training.

“We’re meant to be representative of all students and hear all concerns from all students,” Houston said.

Houston said there will be emotional effects from seeing something like Charlottesville take place, and she feels like it is SGA’s responsibility to help the students who are affected.

Houston also said SGA is “perfect” for funding the training because it is a nonpartisan organization, similar to how legal observers have to remain nonpartisan.

“When it comes down to it, things happen at protests,” Houston said. “Violence can break out, and so it’s important to have someone there who’s not on either side. Having a legal observer just makes sure that you get the truth.”

Reporter Nicole Ziege can be reached at 270-745-6011 or [email protected].