Free Speech Questions for the Next Cal Poly President

By May 27, 2010

After thirty-plus years as President of California Polytechnic State University, Warren J. Baker is retiring. This means that for the first time in a generation, Cal Poly is contemplating who it will trust to take up its mission. Three candidates for the top job reportedly are visiting Cal Poly this week, and columnist Brendan Pringle of the Mustang Daily student newspaper has some questions for them. Free speech is first on the list, which is appropriate given Cal Poly’s history of troubles on the issue.

Pringle writes:

Recently, Cal Poly has had a spotty record of First Amendment protection. From the Steve Hinkle case of 2002 to the Smile and Nod poster incident of 2007, Cal Poly has fumbled when it comes to free speech. This has cost us national embarrassment (Lou Dobbs of CNN called President Baker a "coward and a fool") and over $40,000 in attorney fees, according to The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

What will you do to preserve freedom of speech on campus, and how will you deal with the pressures of special interest groups or other offices unconstitutionally demanding punishment? [...] How will you manage administrators that demand punishment? And finally, do you think free speech should ever be compromised on a college campus?

[...]

(FIRE) has rated Cal Poly a "yellow-light" campus in matters of free speech, inferring that the current regulations of our campus produce a "chilling effect" for students wishing to express their First Amendment rights.

What will you do to change this tide of ignorance toward the First Amendment, and bring Cal Poly to "green-light" status?

These are all good questions deserving thorough responses, and I hope that they don’t go unanswered by the visiting candidates this week.

As I said last week, the changing of a university’s presidency—especially following a tenure as long as Baker’s—presents an opportunity to recommit the university to such fundamental values as free speech. And as I recently pointed out, ignoring this responsibility can come at great cost. Baker, as Pringle mentions, has personal experience with such costs; Cal Poly was ordered in 2004 to pay $40,000 in legal fees for student Steve Hinkle. Hinkle sued Cal Poly after the university found him guilty of "disruption of a campus event" for merely posting a flyer, and the school repeatedly refused to restore his rights.

More recently, Cal Poly came under fire for its CARE-Net program, which allowed for the anonymous reporting of "politically incorrect" speech. Cal Poly was quick this time to reverse course and promise that the program would not be used to target, investigate, or punish protected speech. The Smile and Nod flyer fiasco was another needless headache for Baker and Cal Poly, bringing into serious question whether it had learned anything from the Hinkle case.

Baker’s successor, fairly or not, will inherit his record on protecting free speech. The next Cal Poly president may not be able to wipe the slate totally clean but will have ample opportunity to improve on Baker’s record. He or she can start by taking Pringle’s questions seriously.

Schools: California Polytechnic State University