We are all familiar with the “nanny state.” Now, at the University of New Orleans, we have a “nanny university.” As of this semester, our university president has circumvented state law and dictated where legal-age adults can and cannot smoke cigarettes. But don’t worry—this is for our own personal health and safety, which we students are, of course, utterly incapable of handling on our own.
“The University of New Orleans [UNO] is committed to providing a healthy and comfortable environment,” President Peter J. Fos of UNO told local news stations in July, as he explained the reason for the school’s new tobacco-free policy. “We understand that this initial awareness phase is important in building understanding of the new policy and encouraging compliance. We are confident of the immediate and long-term benefits for our faculty, staff and students.”
This official school policy of apparently saving 21-year old adults from themselves was implemented on campus on August 1. Before this new era of university decrees in the name of students’ best interests, it was typical for many undergrads to smoke in between classes, during lunch, and in general whenever the moment presented itself. And while it was indeed annoying to have second-hand smoking blast people in the face with clouds of tobacco, it was never so unbearable as to require the wholesale deprivation of students’civil liberties on campus.
No one will argue cigarettes are healthy, but students are angry that the university has granted few options to those who choose to smoke. In UNO’s school newspaper, The Driftwood, one anonymous student wrote,“Ponchatrain Hall [a dormitory] smokers should be granted [at least] the benches as a very strict designated smoking area for reasons of safety.” UNO puts such an onus on smoking students that it ultimately seems like a bully, even more than a nanny. That same writer noted that campus police “decided to stop and force us across the street” outside campus borders to smoke because “UNO owns the sidewalk too.”
This entire ordeal reeks of bureaucratic overreach being bandied about in the name of “let-us-save-the-children” politics. But regardless of the university’s ostensibly good intentions, the exigencies of public health cannot supersede protecting the rights of students on campus. Indeed, eroding civil liberties in the name of health benefits creates a slippery slope of forfeiting rights for physical fitness—something which the university has no jurisdiction over.
Louisiana state law—contrary to what UNO official policy claims—affirms this fact.
UNO’s administrative documents claim use of tobacco products on university grounds, including in private vehicles, is punishable by citation or fine as per Louisiana state law.
But there are critical contradictions between Louisiana state law and UNO policy. For example, Louisiana law actually ensures that the prohibition of smoking in private vehicles is illegal (unless it is used to transport children or for daycare purposes). UNO currently bans students from smoking in their own cars on campus, despite the fact that it has no legal grounds to do so.
Perhaps even more problematic is that legal enforcement of the policy itself is a Sisyphean task; there is no way it can be done. Louisiana law states: “Public post secondary education institutions shall develop smoke-free policies for its campuses.” The key word here is policies. Policy entails what is done consistently over time to cultivate an environment of compliance with a goal or strategy; law is what officers must legallycomply with—a semantic detail but one of great significance.
As reported in by Louisiana State University’s police department, officers cannot actually enforce school policy. “Law enforcement enforces law, not policy, and as of now, there are no laws making smoking illegal or worthy of penalty,” Captain Cory Lalonde of LSU said.
But perhaps President Fos knows this. It would explain why he suggests the university go about“encouraging compliance,” because its police department certainly cannot enforce a legal penalty for not complying. (Of course, President Fos does not admit this.) The police can’t technically do anything. As for a violation of any school policy, a student is “subject to appropriate disciplinary action.”
But the ambiguity of “appropriate disciplinary action” is what is so frightening about the smoking ban. Those “disciplinary actions” can encompass a range of penalties, including the loss of scholarship money to expulsion from the university. The university claims students can face a citation or fine for violating the UNO smoking prohibition. This is not the case, but the reality is worse: losing access to a diploma and getting kicked out of school.
All of this should make us pause to consider the prospect at hand: Public smoking is legal in the state of Louisiana, yet if you’re a student, taking a few steps onto a public campus automatically forces you to forfeit that right. Is this sudden change in landscape from neutral ground to secondary school grounds of such enormous relevance that policy makers have the right to tamper with students’ civil liberties? In this case, there is a thin line between enriching one’s health and encroaching upon one’s rights, but the former is never worth the cost of the latter.