San Francisco State forgets a great American ideal: free speech

March 12, 2007

In 1989, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Texas v. Johnson declaring it a constitutional right for individuals to burn the American flag in political protest. The Court wrote:

…recognizing the communicative nature of conduct relating to flags. Attaching a peace sign to the flag, refusing to salute the flag, and displaying a red flag…may find shelter under the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled that such actions in the context of a political protest are expressive political speech protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment. This is the state of First Amendment law. Burning the American flag is legal.

Fast forward seventeen years to October 2006. As FSM Contributing Editor Jason Rantz reported last month, the College Republicans at San Francisco State University (SFSU) are on trial for desecration of Hezbollah and Hamas flags. The College Republicans made replicas of Hezbollah and Hamas flags on butcher paper and at an anti-terrorism rally they stomped on said flags in protest of the terrorist actions of said organizations. Unbeknownst to the College Republicans, upon the Hezbollah and Hamas flags is inscribed the Arabic symbol for Allah.

Students were outraged. Someone who attended the rally filed a formal complaint with the university against the College Republicans for “walking on a banner with the word ‘Allah’ written in Arabic script.” The university launched an investigation into the incident and charged the College Republicans with “attempts to incite violence and create a hostile environment” and “allegations of actions of incivility.”

Last Friday, the College Republicans were tried before a San Francisco State tribunal on charges that no court in the nation would uphold. Why? What is it that a state university, legally bound by the First Amendment and rhetorically dedicated to free expression, finds so repellant that they would directly violate their constitutional obligations and risk inevitable legal repercussions? What is it about condemning two terrorist groups that SFSU finds so intolerable?

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California has joined the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in its condemnation of SFSU’s blatantly unconstitutional treatment of the College Republicans. (You can let SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan know your opinion of SFSU’s actions at president@sfsu.edu or 415-338-1381.)

Meanwhile, at an Ash Wednesday service at Yale Divinity School, students burned copies of the Ten Commandments and the Bill of Rights, dipped their fingers in the ashes and marked their foreheads with the cross. Their actions were meant to signify their own complicity in America’s sins.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports the statement of Christopher Doucot, one misguided student at the Divinity School, “Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent where we remember our sins and the ways that we are complicit in evil in our society. As an American, the way that’s most clear today is through the War on Terror and the war on Iraq.” Yes, damn us for opposing Islamo-fascists who killed our civilians and promised to do so again.

In these two stories is the irony of the modern American university. At San Francisco State University, where administrators are bound by the First Amendment, anti-terrorist protesters are tried on charges of “incivility” for desecrating symbols of our enemies and our enemies’ god. At an Ash Wednesday service at Yale, one of our most prestigious private universities, students burned a symbol for the “Creator” who endowed us with “certain unalienable rights” and a symbol of American freedoms and immunities.

Thus far there has been little indignation or protest over the Ash Wednesday event. Students and faculty at our universities are much more concerned with the possible offense to other nations and other cultures rather than our own. Can you imagine the outrage if they had burned a copy of the Koran, drawn a crescent moon on their foreheads, and declared repentance for the crimes of Islam? These students’ expression is permissible only because a tolerant American culture has produced the laws and institutions that protect them. We should be proud of our free society, even when such students abuse that freedom, but it’s important to have some perspective. Try burning a Koran in Saudi Arabia or Iran. America’s not so bad now is it?

The students claimed that they were repenting for a nation that is not living up to the ideals set out in the Ten Commandments and the Bill of Rights. No kidding. American citizens are on trial at a state university for engaging in protected speech; their only crime was stomping on terrorists’ flags instead of their own and for desecrating the name of Allah rather than Christ. But Yale students are more worried that our government is killing guys who are trying to kill Americans. Somehow I think most Americans’ conception of the ideals of the Ten Commandments and the Bill of Rights, including the accused at SFSU, is a far cry from those misguided students at Yale. And that’s a good thing too.

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Schools: San Francisco State University Cases: San Francisco State University: Students Investigated for Stepping on Flags