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DA Drops Misdemeanor Charges Against Professor Accused In Vaccine Rally Scuffle

The Centre County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday withdrew the most serious charges against a Penn State professor who had been accused of assaulting a counter-protester at a rally urging the university to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations.

Charges of simple assault and disorderly conduct against W. Oliver Baker, assistant professor of English and African American studies were dropped. He still faces one summary count of harassment-following in a public place stemming from the Aug. 27 incident outside of Old Main. He pleaded not guilty on Thursday to that charge.

“The evidentiary theories upon which the affiant based the charges of simple assault and disorderly conduct are inadequate to sustain proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” the order to withdraw the charges signed by Deputy District Attorney Sean McGraw and District Judge Steven Lachman stated.

District Attorney Bernie Cantorna declined further comment on Friday.

Baker’s attorney, Julian Allatt, praised the decision.

“I’m really thankful that they took the time to carefully review the evidence in the case, not only the evidence that was provided to them by law enforcement but also a substantial amount of additional evidence that we provided including photographs…,” Allatt said. “I think they made the right decision.”

Baker was accused of grabbing the counter-protester’s sign, attempting to take it from him, pulling him to the ground, and injuring him as a struggle ensued on the ground.

The counter-protester, a Penn State student, had a bloody nose when police arrived and said he may have struck his head when he was taken to the ground. He was taken to Mount Nittany Medical Center for evaluation.

Allatt said evidence showed that altercation did not occur as described.

“There’s absolutely no evidence — in fact, there’s photographic evidence that it did not happen — that Oliver ended up on the ground in some sort of prolonged struggle with [the counter-protester],” he said.

The harassment charge alleges Baker restricted the counter-protester’s “freedom of movement”. According to the complaint, Baker “followed the victim back and forth attempting to cordon them off and several times made contact with the victim in the course of doing so.”

“There’s no such thing as freedom of movement. That’s a completely fictitious concept,” Allatt said. “The important thing is that there is absolutely no evidence that exists in this case that Oliver Baker made any effort at all to prevent [the counter-protester] from expressing himself. The suggestion that is tacit and occasionally explicit in the criminal complaint is that what Oliver Baker was doing was attempting to interfere with his First Amendment right to express his opposition to the position of the people that were speaking. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Allatt said the counter-protester “was not merely expressing dissent,” but was yelling at and “intimidating” people while “barreling through the crowd.”

“He was doing so in a way that was frightening to people and caused people to have imminent concern that he was going to somehow become physical with the speakers themselves,” Allatt said.

Baker was attempting to defuse the situation, telling the counter-protester he wanted to listen to him while trying to direct him away from others.

“I’m not allowed to detain you unlawfully. That is a very serious crime. There’s no such allegation here,” Allatt said. “It’s just standing in somebody’s way. That’s harassment? If you just walked in the other direction there’s absolutely no reason to believe that any interaction between these people would continue.

“I look forward to trying a case that concerns whether or not my client did and in fact whether or not my client can infringe upon freedom movement, understanding that freedom of movement does not exist.”

Baker remains on administrative leave from the university, a Penn State spokesperson said on Friday.

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About the Author

Geoff Rushton (StateCollege.com)

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for StateCollege.com. Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.

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