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Free Speech on Trial Today at San Francisco State University
SAN FRANCISCO, March 9, 2007—Showing brazen disregard for its students’ clearly established constitutional rights, San Francisco State University (SFSU) is putting the College Republicans on trial today for hosting an anti-terrorism rally at which participants stepped on makeshift Hezbollah and Hamas flags. University officials have alleged that the students desecrated the name of Allah, which is written on both flags in Arabic script. The student group’s leadership contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help when they first learned of the school’s investigation.
“SFSU must call off this hearing immediately,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “The College Republicans engaged in unequivocally protected political expression, and it strains all credibility to think the SFSU administration does not know this. There is nothing to try or investigate here other than protected expression.”
SFSU’s foray into unlawful censorship began after an anti-terrorism rally held on October 17, 2006, at which several members of the College Republicans stepped on butcher paper they had painted to resemble the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah. Unbeknownst to the protestors, the flags they had copied contain the word “Allah” written in Arabic script. On October 26, a student filed a formal complaint with the university against the College Republicans, alleging “attempts to incite violence and create a hostile environment” and “actions of incivility.” Although the university’s Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development (OSPLD), led by Joey Greenwell, could have settled the matter informally or dismissed the charges outright, the university is instead pressing forward today with a hearing on the charges.
FIRE wrote to SFSU President Robert A. Corrigan on January 23, 2007, to stress that no American public institution can lawfully prosecute students for engaging in political protest or for desecrating religious symbols. FIRE’s letter emphasized that “incitement” and creating a “hostile environment” are legal terms that are not applicable to the College Republicans’ actions of stepping on flags. FIRE wrote that “SFSU has a duty to uphold the First Amendment rights of all of its students, even if their expressive activity offends the religious sensibilities of some.” SFSU replied to FIRE’s letter on January 29 by saying that the university would continue to investigate the complaint “to give all parties the confidence that they will be heard and fairly treated by a panel that includes representatives of all the University’s key constituencies.”
FIRE wrote to President Corrigan again on Wednesday to urge him to call off the hearing, pointing out that “[e]xisting First Amendment law leaves no doubt that the College Republicans’ expressive activity enjoys complete protection under the First Amendment,” and that “if you continue to ignore your constitutional obligations, you risk personal liability for depriving your students of their rights.”
“This is not even a close call, legally speaking,” FIRE Vice President Robert L. Shibley said. “The First Amendment protects using or destroying flags in political protest, and even SFSU administrators must realize that they cannot prosecute students for failing to respect a religious symbol. SFSU’s persistence in pursuing a disciplinary hearing in this case is a show of contempt for its students’ constitutional rights.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.
Robert L. Shibley, Vice President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert A. Corrigan, President, SFSU: 415-338-1381; email@example.com
Joey Greenwell, Director of the Office of Student Programs and Leadership Development, SFSU: 415-338-3885; firstname.lastname@example.org
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