SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif., June 1, 2009—California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), which has already once been on the losing side of a free speech lawsuit, has suspended an unconstitutional program targeting professors and students whose speech is “biased” or not “politically correct.” The program even planned to let students report complaints anonymously, meaning that those deemed “politically incorrect” might never have known whom they had offended or why. Under pressure from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Cal Poly has promised that any future CARE-Net program (short for Community Advocating REspect) “will not function to suppress controversial, offensive, or any other kind of protected speech.”
“This program jeopardized students’ and faculty members’ human, legal, and academic rights as members of a public university,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “Cal Poly should be commended for seeing what terrible consequences such inquisitions could have on its campus. We will be watching to make sure this program does not resurface in some other form.”
CARE-Net was launched in May for the purpose of “protecting students from biased teachers” and other “biased incidents,” according to a May 3 article in the Mustang Daily, the school’s student newspaper. The program defined a “bias related incident” as “any speech, act, or harassing incident or action taken by a person or group that is perceived to be malicious or discriminatory toward another person or group based on bias or prejudice relating to [various human characteristics].”
The program also featured a dozen student, faculty, and staff “advocates” who would respond to reports of faculty bias. A frighteningly honest comment to the Mustang Daily by one student advocate revealed that one of CARE-Net’s targets is the “teacher who isn’t politically correct or is hurtful in their actions or words.”
After Cal Poly faculty members asked FIRE for help, FIRE’s Lukianoff wrote Cal Poly President Warren J. Baker on May 6, explaining that targeting “biased” speech for investigation is an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of speech and academic freedom. FIRE’s letter noted that encouraging people to report on one another’s “biased” or “politically incorrect” speech poses a serious threat to the very qualities that make a university a “marketplace of ideas” and chills expression of controversial ideas across the campus.
Cal Poly’s Vice Provost for Academic Programs and Undergraduate Education, W. David Conn, responded for Cal Poly on May 15. Conn announced that the program has been “suspended.” He also stated that the program, if it is reinstated at all, will not suppress any kind of protected speech, and that it will comply with the law, the Constitution, and campus policies and agreements that promise the protection of rights on campus. No such program is expected to be in force until “next fall at the earliest.”
“We are glad that Cal Poly did not wait for yet another lawsuit to repudiate its unconstitutional actions and policies,” said Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy. “It is hard to imagine how a program like CARE-Net could exist at all without betraying fundamental liberties on campus.”
Cal Poly is just the latest school to be caught trying to subject those who exhibit “bias” to official investigations. Under pressure from FIRE and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, University of Nevada Las Vegas recently withdrew a proposed “Policy on Bias Incidents and Hate Crimes” that would have triggered notification of the police in all cases of reports of biased speech. The final version of the policy removed “bias incidents” from investigation entirely.
Bias reporting is the latest attempt by speech and thought control advocates on campus to suppress speech. For instance, the University of Minnesota–Morris and the University of Minnesota–Crookston both say they will investigate “protected speech” that nevertheless “violates the University of Minnesota’s commitment to civility and diversity,” including any “expressions of disrespectful bias” based on personal characteristics. The University of Missouri encourages anonymous reporting of “verbal assault” by others in the form of “stereotypes,” “regardless of the severity.” And the University of Virginia permits anonymous reports of “bias” that automatically trigger police investigations.
“Public universities have no business subjecting student and faculty expressions of sincerely held belief to police investigation,” Creeley said. “Such illiberal policies are not only unconstitutional, but they chill expression and impoverish campus discourse.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.
Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Warren J. Baker, President, California Polytechnic State University: 805-756-6000; email@example.com
David B. Ashley, President, University of Nevada Las Vegas: 702-895-3201; firstname.lastname@example.org
Jacqueline Johnson, Chancellor, University of Minnesota-Morris: 320-589-6020; email@example.com
Charles H. Casey, Chancellor, University of Minnesota-Crookston: 218-281-8343; firstname.lastname@example.org
Brady J. Deaton, Chancellor, University of Missouri: 573-882-3387; email@example.com
John T. Casteen III, President, University of Virginia: 434-924-3337; firstname.lastname@example.org