FIRE Friend Responds to SFSU

March 16, 2007

Upon receiving a FIRE press release regarding a threat to free speech on a university campus, FIRE friend Dr. David Ross always e-mails the administrator in question and asks a simple question: is this true?
After writing to San Francisco State’s administration regarding FIRE’s latest press release decrying the trial of the SFSU College Republicans, who stomped on Hamas and Hezbollah flags during an anti-terrorism rally, Dr. Ross received the following disturbing response:

I am responding to your message concerning San Francisco State’s handling of a student complaint against the College Republicans Club. To clarify some matters of fact: It is a student, not the university itself, that has lodged the complaint. We have a process allowing such complaints against recognized student groups. In such cases, we proceed in accordance with policies and procedures that have been designed to give a voice—and a fair hearing—to all involved. We feel that the Student Organization Hearing Panel (SOHP), which includes faculty, staff, and students accomplishes this. SOHP understands that it is not being asked to judge whether a student organization violated U.S. laws by desecrating a flag. The university knows that such action is protected. Free speech is not at issue; what SOHP is weighing is not content, but conduct. The complaint alleges violations of the student code of conduct regarding responsible behavior and civility, including —in the words of the complainant—“efforts to incite violence and create an environment of hostility and hate.” SOPH [sic] has met and we expect its response within 10 days.

Sincerely yours,
J.E. (Penny) Saffold
Vice President for Student Affairs/Dean of Students

Always the gifted dialectician in defense of liberty, Dr. Ross unleashed the following refutation to SFSU:

 > Free speech is not at issue; what SOHP is weighing is not content, but conduct.
This is a frightening statement, one that makes what’s happening at SFSU look even more dangerous than it had. You seem to be saying that the College Republicans are in the soup, not for what they said, but for the fact that they said it! Or, perhaps, not for what they did, but for the fact that they did it! Or, perhaps, not because they opposed something, but because they let their opposition be known!
I don’t know, of course, how SFSU operates its SOHP, I’d need you, or another representative of SFSU, to tell me. But at some stage of the proceedings, the SFSU administration must make a decision (or have procedures in place for the making of a decision) about whether a particular complaint is legitimate. Clearly, you can’t allow random complainants to use the mechanism of an SOHP hearing to harass anyone and everyone with whom they disagree; SFSU has to judge whether there is merit to the complaint. The fact that SFSU has let this thing go as far as it has means that SFSU grants merit to the claim that the College Republicans behaved badly.
But nothing you’ve said, and nothing that I’ve read about this incident, suggests that the College Republicans did anything except hold a standard-format college campus political protest.
You say that the College Republicans are in trouble because they’re suspected of having made “efforts to incite violence and create an environment of hostility and hate.” I don’t see anything in the actions of the SFSU College Republicans that constituted an effort to incite violence. Of course, if someone who disagrees with you is violent, there’s always the possibility that your expressing your convictions will spark violence on his part; but that’s a problem with the hothead, not with you.  What did the College Republicans do, Vice President Saffold, that SFSU thinks can plausibly be characterized as an effort to incite violence?
Regarding “efforts to … create an environment of hostility and hate” we have to be careful. I do think that a college—even a government school like SFSU—can and should provide a safe, civil, atmosphere for its students. Fundamentally, this means that students should be able to go about their business without reasonable fear of being attacked or harassed; they should be able to be left in peace to pursue their studies. But a standard-issue college political protest of the sort the SFSU College Republicans held does nothing to damage the atmosphere of civility and safety; students are free to ignore such protests, as the overwhelming majority of SFSU students ignored the College Republicans. (The suggestion that SFSU students fear for their safety as a consequence of the Republicans’ protest reminds me of an old joke. A woman calls the cops to complain about her neighbors’ licentious behavior. “Officer, they’re dancing naked on their dining room table!” The cop looks over at the house “I can’t see anything objectionable.” “You have to stand on this chair on your tiptoes” explains the woman, “and crane your neck this way, and look through these binoculars.”) To live in a free society means to live among others who are hostile to your ideas, who hate your values. What did the College Republicans do, Vice President Saffold, that SFSU thinks can plausibly be characterized as creating a hostile, hateful, environment?
Again, since standard college campus political protests—with flag-desecration being the clichéd example—are well-established as legitimate, and we agree that they are protected by the First Amendment, the College Republicans’ actions must, in some essential way, have been different from the standard actions taken at a college campus political protest. Different enough that SFSU thinks that a hearing regarding their behavior is warranted. What was it about the College Republicans’ protest that differed so from standard college campus political protests that a hearing was warranted?
I think that there was nothing about the College Republicans’ protest that distinguished it from standard college campus political protests. I think that the SFSU administration was just dead wrong in trying the College Republicans. If I’m wrong, please write back and tell me why.
David S. Ross

Schools:  San Francisco State University