The arrest of more than two hundred California student activists over the course of twenty-three days of mostly peaceful protest was one of the biggest — and most troubling — campus stories of the fall semester. One hundred and eighteen of those arrests came at UC Berkeley, whose chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, had just weeks earlier told the New Yorker that students were welcome to “occupy any [campus] space they like, that’s fine. Unless they damage a building, in which case they’re breaking the law.”

Birgeneau’s comment demonstrates what a startling and abrupt departure from precedent the California arrests represented. In September, thousands of Berkeley students swarmed into the streets after a protest, snarling traffic, but no arrests were made. In December sixty-six Berkeley students were busted without warning as they slept in an unlocked campus building which they were occupying peacefully and without incident.

Often, charges against arrested student activists have been quietly set aside in the protests’ aftermath. That was the case for fifty-one of fifty-two of those arrested at UC Davis’ Mrak Hall in late November, as well as all eight of those arrested on the night of December 11 at Berkeley, among others.

The decision not to bring charges against students who have been peacefully protesting is always a welcome one, but these California arrests remain troubling for three reasons:

First, these activists never should have been arrested in the first place. An independent student report on the sixty-six arrests at Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall on the morning of December 11, for instance, found that the university had conducted those arrests not, as it claimed, to secure the building for finals the next day, but to prevent the arrested students from mobilizing elsewhere on campus after the Wheeler occupation ended. Given this, the local branch of the ACLU expressed concern that the purpose of the arrests may have been to prevent students from exercising their First Amendment rights, or to punish them for doing so.

Second, criminal charges, once withdrawn, should not be held in reserve as a deterrent to future organizing. At Davis, students had asked the university to intervene with the district attorney to get charges against students dropped, and administrators had promised to do so. But when the DA’s office acted, they merely set aside the charges for a year, contingent on the good behavior of those who had been arrested. This is a tactical use of police power — the deployment of a vague and open-ended threat to impell students to regulate and limit their own legitimate campus activism.

Third, meritless criminal charges should not be used as the basis for campus disciplinary action. Of the eight people arrested at Berkeley on the night of December 11, two were Berkeley students, and both were placed on suspension as a result of the arrests. The DA, however, declined to bring charges against any of the eight. When the first of the two Berkeleyites, Zach Bowin, faced a disciplinary hearing, he brought a lawyer, and the administrative restrictions on his activities were greatly loosened. But the second student, Angela Miller, was given only minimal notice of her hearing, and was not able to secure legal counsel. She remains under suspension, has been evicted from her residence in a student housing co-op, and is barred from communicating with Berkeley students, faculty, or staff.

The hundreds of arrests of California student activists last semester have produced no criminal convictions, no trials, no fines or long-term imprisonment, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that such sanctions were never the point. California’s public universities are using their police power not to protect public safety or to punish criminals, but as a quasi-legal weapon in their campaign against student protest and student expression.

This is not a legitimate use of the power of the state, and it is not the way a university should behave.