It was supposed to be a simple ribbon-cutting ceremony. But when a group of students showed up, chanting and carrying signs protesting the renovation in Coffman Memorial Union, officials at the University of Minnesota were not amused.

Now some of the students say they’re being threatened with disciplinary action for taking part in what they say was a peaceful — if noisy — campus demonstration.

The university confirmed that it sent letters this week to nine students who were accused of being part of a group “who disrupted the ribbon-cutting ceremony” on March 12.

“You willfully engaged in behavior that disrupted this event and would not stop when asked,” said the April 29 letter from Sharon Dzik, director of the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity, citing a report by an unidentified staff member.

“If this report is true,” the letter went on, it was a violation of the student code of conduct, and carried possible sanctions “from a warning to expulsion.” The letter gave the students until May 6 to respond.

Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis attorney representing the students, said he’s concerned that the university is using the student code to punish dissent.

“To my knowledge, no university official was prevented from saying their piece,” he said. “I think the university should just drop this … Otherwise it really does have the potential to chill or deter free speech.”

Danita Brown Young, the vice provost for student affairs, insists this is about behavior, not free speech. “Protests are allowed on campus,” she said. But in this case, “they kept speaking over our keynote addresses.” Brown Young said that she was at the ceremony, and that the students were disruptive through much of the event. “They just did not want to stop when we told them, ‘Could you please quiet down?’ ”

Resentment over renovation

The protest was sparked by simmering resentment over a $2.5 million renovation of the second floor of the student union, where more than two dozen student groups, including gay, black, Hispanic and other minority groups, had their headquarters.

Critics argued that the remodeling shortchanged the minority organizations and destroyed some of their cultural touchstones: most notably, a wall mural depicting the 1969 “takeover” of Morrill Hall by black student activists. The university, however, says that all the affected groups had a voice in the renovation.

When top officials, including U President Eric Kaler, turned up for the formal unveiling on March 12, they were greeted by several dozen protesters holding handmade signs, such as “We Reject Racism” and “Where are the murals?”

“We kind of marched in and we chanted,” said Nick Theis, one of the student protesters. When he got the disciplinary letter, he said, he was stunned. “To me it sounds like kind of a scandal,” said Theis, 22, who expects to graduate this month. “They’re actually going after people for exercising their First Amendment rights.”

The letter also accused the protesters of refusing to identify themselves.

The protest organizers, who call themselves the Whose Diversity? collective, say they’re not sure how the students who received the letters were singled out. “It’s not everyone who was there,” said Joanna Nunez, a 25-year-old graduate student who helped organize the demonstration.

Discipline isn’t automatic

Brown Young, the vice provost, said that she could not discuss individual cases, but that the university had an obligation to investigate when it received a complaint about the protest.

The letters, she said, are a “standardized template” used to notify students about allegations of any kind of misconduct — from cheating and plagiarism to disruptive behavior ­— and to offer them a chance to defend themselves. “This is meant to be an educational process,” she said, noting that it does not automatically result in disciplinary action.

Nestor, who has defended political protesters and activists, said he was contacted by five of the U students and is representing them for free.

“What does disruptive behavior mean?” he said. The speakers “may have been delayed. They may have been annoyed or upset that their idea of decorum wasn’t complied with.” But university officials knew that the renovation was controversial, he said, and should have expected — even welcomed — the protesters.

Nestor said that it’s not unusual for colleges and universities to use student codes of conduct to control dissent. “It’s fairly common around the country,” he said. In fact, Nestor said, in the 1980s, he was once suspended from the University of Iowa for taking part in campus protests against apartheid in South Africa and American policy in Central America. He said he, too, was accused of violating the student code of conduct.

“I do think they’re used quite frequently to target peaceful activity,” he said.