Students who ‘desecrated’ terrorist flags vindicated

November 9, 2007

In a decision hailed as a victory for free speech, a federal judge ordered San Francisco State University and the California State University system to stop enforcing speech codes used to prosecute students for the “desecration” of flags used by terrorist groups.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Wayne Brazil issued a preliminary injunction to bar the schools from enforcing several policies challenged in a lawsuit. One required students to act in accordance with SFSU “goals, principles, and policies” and another, a CSU system-wide policy, called for students “to be civil to one another.”
“This decision is a vital step in the fight against unconstitutional campus speech codes,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the non-profit advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. “The court’s decision frees hundreds of thousands of students throughout the CSU system from unlawful restrictions on their expression.”
The judge, who described himself at the hearing as a “friend of the First Amendment,” also limited the CSU system’s ability to enforce a policy prohibiting “intimidation” and “harassment,” holding that the policy could only be applied to conduct that “reasonably is concluded to threaten or endanger the health or safety of any other person.”
The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund defended the SFSU College Republicans and two of the group’s members in cooperation with FIRE.
As WND reported in March, the university decided – after months of pressure – not to punish College Republicans who had been accused of desecrating the name of Allah by stepping on makeshift Hezbollah and Hamas flags at an anti-terrorism rally.
The trouble began at an Oct. 17, 2006, anti-terrorism rally in which the students stepped on butcher paper painted to resemble the flags of the Middle East terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah. The College Republicans say they simply copied the script from an image on the Internet and didn’t know it bore the name of Allah in Arabic script.
A student who is not a member of the club had filed a complaint with university officials after the protest.
The student claimed that the Republican students engaged in “acts of incivility” and “intimidation” and created a “hostile environment” by publicly walking over the terrorist flags.
“I believe that the complaint is [about] the desecration of Allah,” a university official told the San Francisco Chronicle.
SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan eventually wrote that the Student Organization Hearing Panel “unanimously concluded that the College Republicans organization had not violated the Student Code of Conduct and that there were no grounds to support the student complaint lodged against them.”
But FIRE contended the speech codes led to a “burdensome, unnecessary investigation and five months of ridicule and harassment for these students,” even though they did nothing but exercise their constitutional rights.
The ADF lawsuit asked the court to strike down the ill-defined speech code policies of SFSU and the entire California State University system at issue in the investigation.
ADF attorney David Hacker said Judge Brazil’s decision this week “sends a clear message to administrators in California and nationwide that they are not above the Constitution.”
The San Francisco State and California State University system case is the latest victory in FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project, which seeks to “dismantle unconstitutional speech codes on public university campuses.” Other schools where the group has seen success are Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, Texas Tech University, the State University of New York at Brockport and California’s Citrus College.
“FIRE’s Speech Codes Litigation Project has ended virtually every code it has challenged,” Lukianoff said. “At public universities, these vague and overbroad speech codes are unconstitutional, period. Courts have held this again and again, yet somehow the scandal of campus speech codes continues.”
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Schools: San Francisco State University Cases: San Francisco State University: Speech Code Litigation Project San Francisco State University: Students Investigated for Stepping on Flags