San Francisco State latest target in anti-speech code campaign

July 18, 2007

For a number of years, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been successfully waging a war on college speech codes the organization claims run afoul of protected free speech rights.

The organization has won pivotal victories against Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, Texas Tech University, the State University of New York at Brockport and California’s Citrus College.

Now, San Francisco State University (SFSU) is squarely within FIRE’s crosshairs.

With the assistance of the Alliance Defense Fund, a leading Christian public interest law firm, FIRE has sued SFSU claiming that the university’s policies violated the First Amendment rights of two students who are members of the College Republicans at San Francisco State University.

The controversy started in October 2006 when the College Republicans sought to hold a rally supporting the Iraq war effort. During the gathering, which the group dubbed an “anti-terrorism rally,” students stepped on the flags of Hezbollah and Hamas, thus angering some Muslim students and liberal members of the SFSU academic community.

As a result of their behavior, the College Republicans were hauled before a university tribunal on charges of harassment and forced to state their case as to why they should not be punished. At this point FIRE intervened, writing SFSU and informing the university that First Amendment rights were in play and the College Republicans could not be punished for engaging in free speech activity. The pleas fell on deaf ears, the trial proceeded and the College Republicans were compelled to defend their speech.

SFSU defended its policy by arguing that the speech in question may have been received negatively by the community and the university needed to show its commitment to the process.

Ellen Griffin, a spokesperson for SFSU, went as far as to tell the San Francisco Chronicle, “The university stands behind this process. I don’t believe the complaint is about the desecration of the flag. I believe that the complaint is the desecration of Allah.” FIRE was quick to point out that whether the complaint focused on the flag or the faith, it still targeted constitutionally protected speech.

Despite having the authority to halt the proceedings, SFSU dragged out the trial for five months until finally clearing the students. To FIRE, such a cumbersome and constitutionally flawed process cannot be tolerated.

“Through its policies and practices, SFSU has violated and continues to violate the First Amendment rights of every student on its campus. … SFSU will have to answer for its actions in court,” stated Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE.

The speech codes targeted by FIRE include a student misconduct policy that holds student organizations collectively accountable “when the behavior is inconsistent with SF State goals, principles and policies,” a sexual harassment policy, which allows the university wide discretion to punish any behavior that “emphasizes another person’s sexuality,” and a portion of its student code that prohibits “intimidation” and “harassment” but fails to provide students with a definition of those terms.

“The Supreme Court ruled long ago that the First Amendment protects the right to burn even an American flag in political protest. There are no special protections for Hamas and Hezbollah flags. SFSU knew this, and there is no excuse for putting these students through a five-month ordeal. We hope the lawsuit will stop the university from committing future abuses,” said Lukianoff.

Griffin failed to return a phone call requesting comment.

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