Last week, FIRE sent a letter to California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) President Warren Baker about a new bias incident reporting pilot program approved by the university. Several members of Cal Poly’s faculty had contacted FIRE to express their concerns about the initiative, set to become effective this month, which encouraged students to report
any speech, act, or harassing incident or action taken by a person or group that is perceived to be malicious or discriminatory toward another person or group based on bias or prejudice relating to such characteristics as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, age or mental or physical disability. (Emphasis added.)
The initiative also promised a mechanism by which students could report these incidents anonymously if they so desired.
Faculty were concerned that this new policy would threaten academic freedom, and a May 3 article in Cal Poly’s student newspaper, the Mustang Daily, did nothing to allay those fears. In that article, Cal Poly student Jessica Cresci—one of the "CARE-Net advocates" tasked with receiving and responding to the bias incident reports—explicitly stated that one target of the new initiative was "that teacher who isn’t politically correct or is hurtful in their actions or words."
FIRE’s letter to President Baker explained that the university’s definition of a bias incident was unconstitutional—something that should be of serious concern to Cal Poly, a public university that has already once been on the losing side of a free-speech lawsuit. As FIRE wrote to President Baker:
The idea that Cal Poly, a public institution, is going to allow students to anonymously report and trigger investigations of faculty members whose speech does not meet their subjective standards of "political correctness" would be laughable if it did not pose such a serious threat to academic freedom, candor, and the very qualities that make a university the paradigmatic "marketplace of ideas."
FIRE urgently requests that Cal Poly suspend the implementation of the CARE-Net program pending review and revision of the unconstitutional definition of a "bias-related incident"; eliminate the option of anonymous reporting; and immediately reassure Cal Poly’s faculty that they will not be subject to any investigation or discipline for "politically incorrect" or any other constitutionally protected speech.
Cal Poly has legal, moral, academic, contractual, and constitutional obligations to the rights of its students and faculty. If this program is implemented, students and faculty will live in insecure possession of what should be their common human, legal, and academic rights as members of a public university. It would be a great shame if Cal Poly waited for one lawsuit after another to force it to repudiate its unconstitutional actions and policies.
FIRE has yet to receive a reply from the university, but we discovered yesterday that the program’s unconstitutional definition of a bias incident and the discussion of anonymous reporting—both of which were available on Cal Poly’s CARE-Net website as recently as May 5—have been taken down. The CARE-Net website now states only that "Cal Poly is currently piloting the development of a reporting system entitled CARE-net (Community Advocating Respect). As part of the pilot, the text on this website is being revised. New text will be available soon."
We are hopeful that this development means the university has taken seriously FIRE’s concerns about the impact of the new policy on students’ and faculty members’ constitutionally protected rights to free speech and due process. We look forward to receiving a reply to our letter, and we will keep Torch readers apprised of any developments in this important case.