October 22, 2001
President Stephen Weber
San Diego State University
5500 Campanile Drive
San Diego, California 92182
Re: Zewdalem Kebede
Dear President Weber:
As you can see from the list of our Directors and Board of Advisors,
FIRE unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties,
scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political
and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, freedom
of religion, academic freedom, due process and-in the case of Zewdalem
Kebede-freedom of speech and expression on America’s college campuses.
Our web page, www.thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our
identity and activities.
I write to express our grave concern regarding the official retaliation
against San Diego State University student Zewdalem Kebede following a
heated discussion he had with a number of other students regarding the
September 11 terrorist attacks. In light of this national crisis, it is
crucially important, now more than ever, that we stand by the ideals of
our Constitution and not abandon them to suppress views or modes of
expression that we find offensive.
This is our understanding of the facts. On September 22, Mr.
Kebede overheard a discussion in Arabic among three students who
delighted in the success of the terrorist attacks against the United
States. Kebede, who understands Arabic, was shocked, and he engaged the
students in their own language to challenge their positions. When a
fourth student joined the discussion, he asked if Kebede was
threatening the students. He replied that he was not, and the
discussion ended. Kebede was suitably shocked to discover that he had
been brought up on misconduct charges by the Center for Student Rights
In a letter dated September 25, a University Judicial Officer,
Antionette Jones, accused Kebede of violating Title 5, Section 41301 of
the California Code of Regulations, which states:
Following procedures consonant with due process established
pursuant to Section 41304, any student of a campus may be expelled,
suspended, placed on probation or given a lesser sanction for one or
more of the following causes which must be campus related:
(k) Abusive behavior directed toward, or hazing of, a member of the campus community.
Zewdalem Kebede was forced to report to the office to explain
his actions. He submitted a letter in which he denied taking any
abusive action, and met with Jones privately. Subsequently, Jones
admonished Kebede, and effectively placed him on probation, while
claiming that this did not constitute “disciplinary action.”
As you know, San Diego State University is a public university
and therefore has an overarching legal obligation, in addition to its
moral obligation, to ensure the First Amendment rights of its students.
The use of the California Code to threaten expression and core
political speech profoundly misrepresents the law. As should be
obvious, no state code can trump the protections of the First
Amendment. A definition of “abusive behavior” that includes heated
political discussions on a college campus is irredeemably overbroad and
vague. Further, the code appears directed at physically abusive conduct
or hazing. Misapplying it to impassioned speech eviscerates the
principles of free speech and robust discourse and opens the door to
future abuse of student rights.
The application of this unconstitutional rule to only one side
of a debate, in which the so-called victims outnumbered Mr. Kebede four
to one, reveals a dangerous double standard on the part of the
administration. The First Amendment exists, in part, to prevent the
suppression of views that those in power dislike. While FIRE decries
all attempts to silence students’ point of view, the abuse of such
rules to silence the core beliefs of some students over others is
Zewdalem Kebede’s right to speak applies even if his language
was found to be emotional or fervent. The United States Supreme Court
decided long ago, in Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971), that the
expressive and emotive element of speech enjoys the full protection of
the First Amendment. FIRE notes with irony that a University purporting
to value diversity appears unable to tolerate diverse modes of
discussion and debate, which differ profoundly from nation to nation or
individual to individual. By this action, San Diego State University
endangers speech on any topic that incites students feelings and
emotions, leaving only the most sterile and innocuous topics safe for
analysis and debate.
Accordingly, FIRE asks that San Diego State University:
1) Affirm that Zewdalem Kebede’s opinions are fully protected
under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and that no
device or contrivance will be used to circumvent those rights.
2) Guarantee that Kebede will receive no further retaliation
for the expression of his constitutionally protected opinions on this
or any other topic, past or present.
3) Expunge all derogatory information related to this incident from Kebede’s records.
4) Pledge that the California Code of Regulations will never
again be interpreted as interfering in any way with student’s
Constitutional rights, either by sanction or threat of sanction.
San Diego State University must understand that its disciplining of
Kebede will not only remove any meaningful protection of the rights of
your existing students and faculty, but also will result in a chilling
effect across education as a whole. A university in which students and
faculty have any fear of reprisal for discussing controversial topics
is one that is rendered impotent to address society’s most crucial
FIRE hopes we are able to resolve this dispute discreetly and
amicably. However, FIRE is committed to using all of its media and
legal resources to support Zewdalem Kebede throughout this process to a
just and moral conclusion. Please spare San Diego State University the
embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights by which it is
legally and morally bound.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Director of Legal and Public Advocacy
CC: Nancy Marlin, Provost and Vice President, Academic Affairs
James Kitchen, Vice President for Student Affairs
Marty Block, Student’s Rights and Responsibilities
Antionette Jones, University Judicial Officer