Caltech refuses to change viewpoint-discriminatory event funding guideline

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Caltech refuses to change viewpoint-discriminatory event funding guideline

California Institute of Technology's entrance sign

The California Institute of Technology's Graduate Student Council has said that it will not change a policy conditions event funding on conformity to the college's values.(Shutterstock.com)

After a letter and public criticism from FIRE, California Institute of Technology’s Graduate Student Council refused to change event funding guidelines that condition funding for student-invited speakers on adherence to “Caltech’s values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

As we detailed last month, FIRE wrote to Caltech on Dec. 10 expressing concern over the guidelines, as they could establish an ideological litmus test for evaluating speaking events. Although the university responded to FIRE reaffirming the university’s free expression commitments and pledging to review the policies, when we offered the assistance of our policy experts, and inquired about the status of Caltech’s policy review, FIRE received no reply.

After we publicized the situation Caltech got back to us — though it was not the response we had hoped for.

This policy, in practice, may violate Caltech’s obligations under California’s “Leonard Law.”

On May 2, Caltech’s Graduate Student Council wrote to FIRE that GSC “believes in asking tough questions and advocating for open discussion of all ideas, including those that may not be widely held,” but it would not change its event funding guidelines. David C. Chan, Caltech’s Dean of Graduate Studies, also responded with a letter, stating that Caltech supports GSC and its mission and that his office will “work with the GSC to ensure that diverse viewpoints are represented by speakers at Caltech.”

Although we appreciate that GSC and Caltech say they’ll ensure speakers represent diverse viewpoints, their policies do not match this commitment. They must put these words into practice by revising the speaker guidelines to ensure those contemplating speaker invitations will not believe Caltech’s commitment to diverse viewpoints is negated by the requirement to adhere to Caltech's diversity, equity, and inclusion values.

Caltech cannot allow this policy to stay on the books and must intervene to remove it.

Caltech promises its students that they enjoy expressive rights, and it cannot waver in that commitment when funding events with student-invited speakers. Additionally, as we explained in our letter, this policy, in practice, may violate Caltech’s obligations under California’s “Leonard Law,” which guarantees students at the state’s non-religious private institutions of higher education protections commensurate with those students enjoy at public institutions under the First Amendment.

As we wrote:

Associational rights are linked with the speech rights of an organization’s individual members. The Supreme Court has recognized that freedom of expression extends to association.  The government offends the First Amendment when it imposes financial burdens on certain speakers based on the content of their expression.  If Caltech’s GSC were to reject a speaker due to the speaker’s viewpoint, determining that his or her views do not adequately represent the values of undefined “diversity, equity, and inclusion” interests, this would undermine the Leonard Law’s purpose of broadly protecting students’ expressive rights.

Given these institutional commitments to free expression and requirements under the Leonard Law, Caltech may not maintain policies which allow the university — or student governments whose authority is provided by the administration — to discriminate against student organizations based on their viewpoints or the viewpoints of invited speakers. Providing GSC this discretion all but guarantees funding power will be abused to punish views at odds with popular sentiment or of those tasked with evaluating event funding.

Caltech cannot allow this policy to stay on the books and must intervene to remove it. Instead of simply making side promises not to use its viewpoint discriminatory policy to discriminate, it is the university’s responsibility to not maintain impermissible policies. FIRE urges Caltech to immediately make this change.


FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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