The editorial board of the Mustang News, California Polytechnic State University’s (Cal Poly) student newspaper, wrote earlier this week to criticize both the students responsible for organizing the recent “Colonial Bros and Nava-hos” themed party and those calling for the school to punish the party hosts.
The board emphasizes that it does not condone offensive party themes like this one, and that students—especially student organization leaders—should encourage their peers not to degrade women and perpetuate stereotypes. But there’s a critically important line to be drawn:
[J]ust as these leaders can express their own personal opinions, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong can do the same by denouncing this party as something that offends his own beliefs.
But using university resources to investigate and try to stop these parties is an absolute violation of students’ right to free speech.
In an email to campus telling students about this party, Armstrong and Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey said that “events like these have no place in the Cal Poly community.”
While the two might believe this, it isn’t true. Courts have ruled again and again that citizens — including those at universities — have a right to say what they want, even if it’s unpopular. Party themes can be tasteless; costumes can be objectifying. But unless students are targeted and lose access to state resources because of it, there’s no legal reason the state should stop that speech.
Based on what Cal Poly has released so far about why it is investigating — that some people found the party theme and dress “offensive” — the university should immediately drop its investigation.
The editorial board’s remarks echo what FIRE’s Joe Cohn told the Mustang News last week. As Joe noted, even an investigation into protected speech can have a significant chilling effect on student expression, as students are likely to self-censor rather than risk negative repercussions of controversial speech.
Read the rest of the editorial board’s important statement on the controversy in the Mustang News.
Image: Mustang news cartoon - cartoon by Bryce Snyder