The 2020-21 Impeachment of Jacob Custer
by Patrick McCullough | published Sep. 9th, 2021
During the Fall semester of 2020, a petition advocating for the impeachment of COLA Senator Jacob Custer began circulating around RIT campus. The details surrounding this event were a mystery then, and in some ways continues to be one now, almost a year later.
Petition of Impeachment
The process of impeachment began with a petition. The nature and contents of this document have not been released to the public since the impeachment process began last fall. However, archives of the original document still exist online.
“This letter is intended to bring awareness to multiple accounts where Jacob Custer goes against the mission of Student Government, specifically going against initiatives that enrich students' lives on RIT campus,” an archived version of the petition stated.
The document elaborated on the exact nature of the charges. Custer was accused of violating the university’s core values (P04.0), the duties of senators and voting representatives (B04.0 Article 1, Section 2), the code of ethical conduct and compliance (C00.0 Article 3) and the university’s policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation (C06.0 Article 3).
“These actions include, but are not limited to, negative attitudes towards members, blatant disregard of the effects of controversial topics such as Blue Lives Matter and how it affects the Black and Brown community, and blatant disregard for anyone’s views,” the petition continued.
The snapshot of the document only captured the landing page of what appears to be a larger document. A link at the bottom directs viewers to a collection of evidence that allegedly makes the case for impeachment.
The internet archive did not capture that portion of the document.
The evidence presented against Custer only exists in the form of edited screenshots that appear in a handful of right-leaning publications that picked up the story in the wake of the impeachment.
The case against Jacob Custer had to be assembled in stages, since many of the original documents containing the evidence laid against him are no longer accessible.
The evidence only exists in the form of incomplete digital archives and heavily edited screenshots within articles written at the time.
"The College Fix" is a conservative news blog that is operated by the Student Free Press Association, a non-profit organization run by veteran journalists to help beginning journalists.
According to screenshots presented by "The College Fix," the effort to impeach Custer started in part with a conversation about a campus security officer who wore a mask in support of Blue Lives Matter.
The discussion centered around an RIT Public Safety officer who was seen wearing a ‘thin blue line’ mask, a symbol which is associated with the pro-police Blue Lives Matter movement.
Members of Student Government (SG) discussed ways they could apply pressure to RIT.
“Effectively putting a spotlight on a big hole in RIT’s claims of making efforts to be anti-racist,” said one unnamed student.
This pressure included possibly hosting a public event, distributing posters and advertising the effects of Blue Lives Matter iconography on campus.
According to Christopher Ferrari, vice president of SG and a senator at the time of the impeachment, SG did not have the ability to enact policies as dramatic as the banning of speech.
"Student Government is an advocacy-based organization," Ferrari explained. "We're in a unique position. We're students, but we're also part of an advocacy group."
SG can advocate for things that students want, but the organization does not have the power to shape RIT policy. Members can shape and enforce their own bylaws, but those bylaws still have to operate under the broader university policy.
Additional evidence is presented in a series of screenshots titled "3 BLM" and "Lack of Fathers," according to "The College Fix." The article only includes one of those images, which shows Custer discussing the lack of fathers in Black communities.
"Campus Reform," which identifies as “a conservative watchdog for the nation’s higher education system,” also covered Custer’s impeachment. Their coverage of events provided additional context to the conversations going on in SG's private channels.
Screenshots provided in their coverage reveal conversations that were not included in "The College Fix’s" coverage, as members of SG move from the topic of Blue Lives Matter to free speech on campus.
“I have seen and know students who support Blue Lives Matter especially with the masks. I am even one of them. I am standing by the idea of free speech as a whole even if I disagree with other ideas,” Custer wrote.
He went on to define racism as stating or implying that one race is superior to another. According to Custer, people who supported Blue Lives Matter were not expressing racial animus and that the movement should not be labeled racist.
Other members in the chat took issue with Custer’s analysis of the situation: “As I said before, it is not your place to decide when something is or isn’t racist because of your biases, let alone tell a POC that something isn’t racist.”
In correspondence with"The College Fix" and "Campus Reform," Custer himself doubled down on the free speech angle.
“I fear I will face repercussions simply because I stood for free speech, and I knew the consequences on a liberal campus, but I believe such fear is something other students should not have to face in a disagreement,” he said.
"I fear I will face repercussions simply because I stood for free speech, and I knew the consequences on a liberal campus."
The Fox & Friends segment Custer appeared on in late January reiterates the narrative that colleges are no longer “intellectual bastions where everyone can express their viewpoints and you can learn from your fellow students,” despite the fact that the impeachment was ultimately overturned.
However, not everyone is bound to university policy. Members of SG, including then-President Shine DeHarder, reportedly began receiving threatening emails and phone calls as the story of the impeachment began to circulate around the internet.
Let Bylaws Be Bylaws
The case against Jacob Custer is only available through secondhand sources, but the bylaws that govern the process of impeachment itself are still open to the public.
Appendix H of SG’s bylaws outlines the impeachment process.
The petition for impeachment must be presented to the Standards Review Board, a group of representatives from SG and the Representative Student Organizations (RSOs) selected by the SG vice president.
This group must meet by the fourth week of the Fall semester to review the impeachment process for the year. According to Jacob Custer, this had not happened by the time of his impeachment in late fall.
“[SG] didn't follow their own bylaw proceedings to have a Standard Review Board made up at the beginning of the school year. They had to make one during the three-week proceedings,” Custer remarked.
The late formation of the Standards Review Board was corroborated by several students familiar with the matter. SG formed the board responsible for overseeing the impeachment after the petition to impeach had already been filed.
According to a person familiar with the proceedings, anyone who had signed the petition that had circulated was not able to serve on the Standards Review Board.
Once the petition for impeachment was presented, the board held a meeting to review the impeachment. At the meeting, the accused and the accuser made their case for and against impeachment.
The final decision was left to a two-thirds majority vote. The decision to impeach Jacob Custer was effective immediately following the meeting.
Impeachment can be overturned if the accused chooses to appeal the decision. An impeached member of SG is allowed to keep their position until the appeal has finished.
At the time of Custer’s impeachment, the process outlined in the bylaws was two sentences long.
"A. If the voting representatives elect to impeach the accused, the accused individual has the right to appeal the decision within 10 days of the sanction" and "B. Appeals will then be presented to Senate for a final decision," according to Appendix H, Section 7 of the SG bylaws.
SG’s bylaws are updated by the Governance Committee, which is composed of the president and vice president of SG and a representative from each RSO.
Since the previous SG had not written an appeal process into their bylaws, it fell to the current committee to write one in the wake of the impeachment.
“[The Governance Committee] talk about bylaw stuff. They talk about amendments, changes and they are also responsible for the impeachment proceedings themselves,” Custer explained, referring to the rules that govern the impeachment.
Custer alleged that the Governance Committee was not restricted in the same way the Standards Review Board had been. According to him, members of the Governance Committee had also expressed support for his impeachment.
Once the committee had settled on a process to handle Custer’s appeal, the case was presented to the members of the SG senate. Members of the senate were allowed to vote in the appeal hearing, even if they had previously signed the document supporting Custer’s impeachment.
The senate was to determine whether the Standards Review Board responsible for overseeing the impeachment had conducted the process properly. The senate ultimately decided to uphold the decision to impeach.
The Office of the President announced an investigation into the SG’s decision to impeach Custer on Feb. 26, 2021.
The announcement came in the form of an email from RIT President David Munson. In it, Munson announced the formation of a Review Panel consisting of “members of the RIT Board of Trustees and others.”
This panel was tasked with determining whether or not the SG’s decision violated Policy C.11, which defines free speech and free expression on campus, and Policy C.6, which prohibits discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
“I had been approached by people both inside and outside the university who had asked whether the university’s free speech policy had been breached. To advise me on this question, I decided to appoint a review panel with a number of Trustees and staff members who have experience in dealing with appeals and student issues." Munson explained when Reporter reached out for comment.
“I had been approached by people both inside and outside the university who had asked whether the university’s free speech policy had been breached."
The investigation panel returned their findings, and students were made aware of the decision on April 15, 2021. Their conclusion was that Custer’s impeachment had violated RIT's policies on free speech, though the exact manner or extent of that violation was not explained.
The panel also found that Custer had not violated the university’s Policy C.6, which prohibits discrimination, harassment and retaliation. Once this decision was made, Custer's impeachment was overturned and he was to remain a member of SG.
This announcement was coupled with a statement reiterating the importance of open and respectful discussion of controversial issues. It ended with a recommendation directed towards SG, suggesting they amend their bylaws to include more robust resolution measures and sanctions that do not extend as far as impeachment.
Outside of the emails sent to the student body, there has been little insight into the process the Office of the President used to come to that conclusion. According to President Munson, the Review Panel consisted of RIT staff and members of the RIT Board of Trustees.
Munson's statement also affirmed that most of the members on the panel were "persons of color." However, the information on the panel, its members and its decision-making process ends there.
This article is part of an ongoing investigation. To stay up-to-date on the latest information, visit the Reporter website at reporter.rit.edu.