Just yesterday, in response to a heckler’s veto at UAlbany, FIRE tweeted “Another day, another shoutdown on a college campus.”
Well, that wasn’t an exaggeration. Last night, protestors at San Francisco State University attempted to shout down and shut down a speaking event with former NCAA swimmer Riley Gaines. The school’s Turning Point USA chapter had invited Gaines to campus to talk about gender and sports, but she was met by an angry crowd chanting and screaming at her to leave.
While Gaines gave her speech, protestors continued to disrupt the event, drowning her out by stomping and yelling inside the room and in the hallway immediately outside while she spoke. After her speech, police attempted to escort Gaines to a secure location, but the crowd followed them out of the room and down the hallway, screaming and shouting until police locked Gaines in a secure room. Gaines reportedly remained trapped inside the room for almost three hours until the protestors dispersed and police escorted her out.
This comes on the heels of FIRE’s sharp criticism of SFSU earlier in the day yesterday for investigating a professor who displayed a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad in his course on the history of the Islamic world. We told the public university that the First Amendment requires it to respect faculty’s academic freedom rights to teach material relevant to their classes without facing sanction.
To be clear, the heckler’s veto — substantial disruption of expressive events — is not protected speech.
SFSU responded to FIRE last night insisting that it cannot forgo or end its investigation into the professor because “[o]nce an investigation is initiated, the University has limited ability to dismiss it.” That appears to be the university’s position even when, as here, the matter up for investigation is protected speech.
SFSU should not have initiated the investigation in the first place. But if SFSU feels an absolute need to investigate something, it should turn its attention to the students who disrupted TPUSA’s event.
San Francisco State University is investigating a history professor for showing a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad while teaching a lesson on the history of the Islamic world after a student filed a complaint.
SFSU must, in fact, investigate the disruption of last night’s event and determine whether the administration and campus security took appropriate action to satisfy the university’s duty to ensure protected speech and expressive events can occur on campus, and whether they had any role in fomenting or sustaining the disruption.
This latest incident at SFSU illustrates a broader trend of students shouting down speakers with whom they disagree. We saw similar shout-downs on Tuesday at UAlbany and at Stanford Law School last month.
To be clear, the heckler’s veto — substantial disruption of expressive events — is not protected speech. The students who protested outside the event without disrupting it engaged in First Amendment protected activity. But those who stomped and yelled during Gaines’ appearance in an attempt to drown her out, or accosted her in the halls to intimidate her, did not.
SFSU must provide adequate security to remove disruptive students and prevent the heckler’s veto at expressive events. The university can start by educating students and staff about their First Amendment rights, drawing a clear distinction between what does and does not constitute free speech.
We urge SFSU to examine its failures last night and ensure a plan is in place to protect free speech for everyone, no matter their views.
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 a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).