Cal Poly in Court for Violating First Amendment

September 25, 2003

LOS ANGELES, CA—On September 25, 2003, President Warren Baker and other administrators of California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly) were sued in federal court for violating the First Amendment rights of Cal Poly student Steven Hinkle. “It is unfortunate that Cal Poly administrators refused to fulfill their obligations to the Constitution. If President Baker will not defend the basic free speech rights of his students, we will,” said Thor L. Halvorssen, CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which coordinated the lawsuit.

The complaint requests that the court overturn Cal Poly’s punishment of Hinkle and clear his record of any wrongdoing. It also asks for a ruling that Cal Poly’s interpretation of “disruption”—which was used to punish clearly protected speech—is unconstitutional, and it requests punitive and other damages. FIRE Legal Network attorney Carol Sobel filed the suit in cooperation with the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), a nonprofit public interest law firm—dedicated to the defense of individual liberties—based in Washington, DC. Sobel and CIR also filed for a temporary restraining order that would require Cal Poly immediately to cease any further attempts to punish or suppress their students’ speech unlawfully. The case against the Cal Poly administration was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles.

“We are committed to seeing this case through to a just conclusion,” said Terry Pell, president of CIR. “It is unfortunate that Cal Poly has forced us to resort to the courts to protect the civil rights of its students.”

The events that led up to this lawsuit began on November 12, 2002, when Hinkle attempted to post a flier in the common area of the campus Multicultural Center (MCC). His flier advertised a speech by Mason Weaver, author of the book It’s OK to Leave the Plantation, who argues that dependence on government programs puts many African-Americans in circumstances similar to slavery. The flier contained only the title of the book, the time and place of the speech, and the name and picture of the author, who is himself black.

Several students at the MCC objected to the flier, saying it was “offensive.” Hinkle’s offer to discuss the flier was met with threats to call the university police. After Hinkle left, a student did indeed call the university police. The official university police report stated that officers had responded to complaints about “a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature.” Later, the objecting students claimed that they were holding a meeting, though they conceded that there was no notice whatsoever of such a meeting.

In March of 2003, the Cal Poly Judicial Affairs Office found Hinkle guilty of “disruption of a campus event.” After a seven-hour hearing, where he was not allowed an attorney, Hinkle was sentenced to write letters of apology to the offended students—letters that would have to be approved by Cal Poly administrators. According to Hinkle, Cal Poly threatened him with expulsion if he did not write the letters of apology for what he rightly saw as the exercise of his constitutional right of freedom of speech.

Hinkle contacted FIRE in March of 2003. FIRE wrote two letters to Cal Poly President Baker, explaining his legal and moral obligations to the First Amendment and the canons of academic freedom. FIRE initiated a campaign of public exposure when the university refused to take the necessary action to restore its students’ rights. CIR and Carol Sobel now seek to vindicate, in court, the rights of Hinkle and of all Cal Poly students.

The Center for Individual Rights is a nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to the defense of individual liberties. CIR provides free legal representation to deserving clients who cannot otherwise afford or obtain legal counsel and whose individual rights are threatened.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonprofit educational foundation. FIRE unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and due process on our nation’s campuses. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Cal Poly and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org

Curt Levey, Center for Individual Rights: 202-833-8400 x114; levey@cir-usa.org

Warren J. Baker, President, Cal Poly: 805-756-6000; wbaker@calpoly.edu

Cornel N. Morton, Vice President for Student Affairs, Cal Poly: 805-756-1521; cmorton@calpoly.edu

Ardith Tregenza, Director of Judicial Affairs, Cal Poly: 805-756-2794; atregenz@calpoly.edu