This Month in FIRE History: Victory at Cal Poly

By on May 26, 2006

This month, back in 2004, California Polytechnic State University finally capitulated in its efforts to defend the indefensible: its finding student Steve Hinkle guilty of “disruption” for merely posting a flier with the title of book some students found offensive. Cal Poly should be the poster child for how not to handle a free speech controversy. First, they bungled their way into it with the thinnest of claims. Next, when FIRE got involved they did not realize they had been caught red-handed. Instead they took inadequate steps to address and/or excuse what they had done, spent the summer being savaged in the press, got sued, and had to settle the lawsuit in favor of Hinkle the following spring.
 
The “incident” that led to the PC odyssey occurred on November 12, 2002, when Hinkle attempted to post a flier in the common area of the campus Multicultural Center that advertised a speech by Mason Weaver, author of the book It’s OK to Leave the Plantation. Weaver argues that dependence on government puts many African Americans in circumstances similar to slavery. The flier displayed only the title of the book, the time and place of the event, and a picture of the author. Several students at the Multicultural Center objected that the poster was “offensive.” Hinkle offered to discuss the flier, but to no avail. After he left, a student called the university police, whose official report stated that officers had responded to complaints about "a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature."

The Cal Poly Judicial Affairs Office, after a seven-hour hearing in February 2003, found Hinkle guilty of “disruption of a campus event,” as several students in the Multicultural Center public area claimed that they were having a meeting at the time, although no sign, announcement, or record of that event existed. During the hearing, Hinkle asked Ardith Tregenza, the director of judicial affairs, to define “disruption.” She answered: “I think to interfere with a regular process or to cause people to do something other than they would normally do, have planned to do, anticipated doing, to shake up, to—Gosh, I feel like I’m on Jeopardy. Let’s see. That’s what comes to mind at four o’clock with no caffeine.” It is pretty frightening to be charged with an offense that the person in charge of student discipline can’t even define.
 
For engaging in constitutionally protected expression, Hinkle was ordered to write letters of apology to the offended students. Failure to do so could have led to severe disciplinary penalties. Hinkle contacted FIRE in March 2003. FIRE wrote twice to Cal Poly President Warren Baker and, after the university refused to restore Hinkle’s rights, began a national campaign of public exposure. FIRE also coordinated the now-settled September 2003 lawsuit.
 
In May 2004, Cal Poly finally agreed to clear the incident from Hinkle’s disciplinary record, pledged not to interfere with Hinkle’s right to post promotional fliers, and paid substantial attorneys fees. Cal Poly also repudiated its overbroad definition of “disruption.”
 
Thanks to FIRE legal network attorney Carol Sobel and the Center for Individual Rights for filing the suit. Also, thanks to Evan Coyne Maloney, who did a great job of covering this shameful and absurd case in his film Brainwashing 101. Be on the lookout for Indoctrinate U, the feature-length follow-up to Brainwashing 101 and Brainwashing 201: The Second Semester. Thanks to Evan’s work this rich and bizarre case will not be soon forgotten.

Schools: California Polytechnic State University