Giving In at George Washington U.

After professor threatens to sue official, university says it will take stronger steps to deter smoking outside buildings.
April 25, 2006

George Washington University has agreed to actively discourage smoking around the entrances to all buildings on its campus -- a change of heart for which a law professor who threatened to sue a university administrator takes credit.

For months, some students and faculty and staff members have been complaining to George Washington administrators about second-hand smoke generated by the throngs of cigarette smokers who gather outside building entrances on the D.C. campus. They have also complained about a perceived lack of responsiveness by university officials, who have argued that they have little control over what people do on the city sidewalks onto which most campus buildings front.

That perceived inaction prompted John H. Banzhaf III, a professor of public interest law at the university, to threaten legal action this month against Fitzroy Smith, director of the campus risk management office, in a way that would hold Smith personally liable under the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act -- a novel legal tactic he said he would encourage students to use in other cases.

In response, a George Washington spokesman said that the university would encourage students who live in campus residence halls to vote about whether they want to bar smoking around their dormitories, and “self-police this kind of thing” by barring smoking around that dormitory, and would consider moving ashtrays outside campus buildings to try to “push folks away” from the doors.

Calling those proposals “obviously unsatisfactory,” Banzhaf last Thursday sent university lawyers a draft of the legal complaint he planned to file against Smith. The next day, Banzhaf said, he heard again from George Washington officials -- this time telling him that they had agreed to put up signs on every campus building telling smokers to move away from the entryways, and to move existing ashtrays as well.

“They’ve capitulated,” Banzhaf said. “They’ve gone from ‘we’ll let the students vote on whether to ban smoking and look into moving the ashtrays’ to ‘each and every one of the buildings will have signs, and we will move the ashtrays.’ “

A spokesman for George Washington, Matt Lindsay, said that it might take the university a while to make all the changes, since different buildings, depending on their locations and designs, might require different sorts of signs and different work to move the ashtrays. “We’re going to do an inventory of each of our buildings, starting with the residence halls, which we hope to have in place by fall, and then move on to other university buildings.”

Lindsay said that while Banzhaf’s advocacy had, along with that of students, “helped keep [the issue] in people's minds,” it would be an exaggeration to say that the threat of legal action had “caused us to change our minds.”

“As we analyzed the situation and saw the tide of people getting behind this proposal, we just took a longer look at it,” Lindsay said.

That drew a laugh from Banzhaf. “It would be an awfully amazing coincidence,” he said, “if I send a draft of my complaint on Thursday and on Friday they change their minds.”


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