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This Month in FIRE History: San Francisco State University Investigates Students for Anti-Terrorism Protest

San Francisco State University entrance sign

Kit Leong /

As documented in our video "FIRE on Campus: An Introduction to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education," one of FIRE's most shocking February cases over our ten-year history began two years ago at San Francisco State University, when the university administration responded to FIRE defending its decision to investigate the College Republicans for an anti-terrorism rally. As a part of the group's event, they painted mock Hamas and Hezbollah flags on large pieces of paper and stepped on them to show their outrage for the actions of those groups. Unbeknownst to the protestors, the flags they had copied contained the word "Allah" written in Arabic script.

After offended students filed a complaint, SFSU initiated an investigation into accusations of incitement, creation of a hostile environment, and incivility.

Desecration of flags is, of course, protected political expression. However, when questioned by the San Francisco Chronicle, an SFSU spokesperson stated, "I don't believe the complaint is about the desecration of the flag. I believe that the complaint is the desecration of Allah."

As Robert Shibley pointed out at the time, "This sets a truly horrifying precedent. SFSU has actually managed to reinstitute the blasphemy laws of the past, and apply them not just to religious speech (you may not say anything disrespectful towards a god or gods) but to political speech as well (disrespectful political expression intertwined with religious expression is off limits). In fact, SFSU has actually put in place a regime in which the Hamas and Hezbollah flags would receive more protection than the flag of our own nation, simply because they bear the name of a religious figure."

After more than month of public pressure from FIRE, SFSU decided not to punish the College Republicans for their rally. The College Republicans subsequently sued and earned a settlement under which, among other things, the entire California State University System agreed to explicitly state that students would not be prosecuted for so-called incivility.

Now, two years later, SFSU's commitment to free expression is being tested again—the College Republicans held an anti-Hamas rally on Wednesday. This time, the protest caused even greater outrage from students, but there has been no official word about SFSU's response so far. We can only hope that the school has learned its lesson.

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