In the latest development in SFSU’s prosecution
of the College Republicans, SFSU President Robert Corrigan has written a response to FIRE’s March 7 letter
urging the administration to end proceedings against the students who dared to step on Hamas and Hezbollah flags in an act of political protest. In his reply, Corrigan points FIRE toward the statement
SFSU posted on its website recently defending its actions in the investigation and hearing that followed the College Republicans’ protest.
The statement is called “On avoiding a rush to judgment”—an interesting title considering that the College Republicans’ alleged misdeeds took place nearly five months ago. If he’s talking about SFSU’s judgment, it has been anything but rushed—it has been prolonged and agonizing for the students involved. If Corrigan is referring to the public and the fine organizations
that are urging SFSU to reach a decision in this matter, it’s because SFSU has dragged this case on for far too long already. The College Republicans engaged in clearly protected symbolic speech on a public university campus—what’s to investigate? What’s to punish?
Corrigan’s statement first attempts to assure us all that SFSU respects freedom of speech, but that it also “take[s] student complaints seriously,” which is why the case against the College Republicans has proceeded as far as it has. But taking students’ complaints seriously is very different from conducting an investigation and then putting a student group on trial. Does SFSU really insist that every single complaint that comes before administrators advances to this level of adjudication? If that truly is the case, then SFSU should really develop some process for dismissing illegitimate complaints—such as ones that confuse protected political expression with serious crimes—before they go too far.
Corrigan also says in his statement that “[i]n all matters involving student organizations we make a clear distinction between content and process—between the opinions that may be expressed (in all but the rarest cases protected as free speech) and the policies that student groups must follow during their events.” Why juxtapose protected speech and university policies? Are SFSU’s “policies” really in such tension with admittedly constitutionally protected student speech to the extent that the former subsumes the latter? Legally, such a fallacy cannot stand at a public university. Public institutions should—nay, are legally required to—ensure that their policies are completely consistent with the First Amendment. But apparently Corrigan doesn’t agree, because he also avers in his statement that “[o]ur policies represent our best response to our values.” Again, SFSU’s values should not and cannot collide with the constitutional rights of its students.
In defense of making the College Republicans stand trial before the Student Organization Hearing Panel (SOHP), Corrigan continues to confuse protected speech with what he imagines to be unprotected “actions.” Corrigan writes in the letter to FIRE that “SOPH [sic] is only reviewing a student’s complaint that a recognized student organization took actions that violated the student code of conduct regarding responsible behavior.” Corrigan’s insistence on hiding behind his school’s policies to defend clear violations of a student group’s right to free expression is a bureaucratic sleight-of-hand. As FIRE has pointed out in both of its letters to SFSU, the Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. Johnson (1989) that flag desecration is an act of protected expression—not some unprotected “action.”
Finally, Corrigan rails against the public that has taken such a liking (read: disliking) to this case. He writes in his letter to FIRE that his statement on the SFSU website “was prompted by an increasingly common—and troubling—pattern of communications from beyond the campus.” Corrigan apparently doesn’t like it when “a wide and distant public starts to weigh in.” Corrigan again in his statement references these pesky outsiders, saying “such outside pressure is both disheartening and distracting.” Although it may have come as a surprise to Corrigan, we are pleased that he has now learned that the American public does not approve of public officials denying constitutional rights to fellow citizens.
If only SFSU would have done the right thing from the beginning and dismissed these charges against the College Republicans after the preliminary investigation revealed that the complaints did not have a legal leg to stand on, then perhaps the public—you know, the taxpayers who pay Corrigan’s salary—wouldn’t feel the need to call or write his office to tell him what he should have already known: The threat of judicial sanctions for students whose only “violation” was to engage in constitutionally protected speech is just plain wrong.
Corrigan may be dismayed to hear this, but a public institution and the public officials who run that institution are indeed ultimately beholden to the public they serve. Opinions from people across the country should be neither “disheartening” nor “troubling.” We far too often come across university administrators who believe the buck stops with them, that they do not answer to any authority higher than their own. Corrigan is quickly learning that this is not the case; that he is, in fact, a public servant. After all, public higher education is not the small province of a few insiders—rather, it’s an enterprise that truly involves the whole country.
Corrigan’s statements provide yet more evidence that the public, organizations—and yes, many lawyers—are all expressing outrage at SFSU’s disdain for free expression.
San Francisco State University